New York Times Editorial on the Killing of Cecil the Lion!

Cecil the Lion

Dear Commons Community,

Here is today’s New York Times editorial on the killing of Cecil the lion by an American dentist from Minnesota.



The Death of Cecil the Lion

By the Editorial Board – JULY 31, 2015

The death of Cecil, the black-maned lion killed by an American big-game hunter in Zimbabwe, has unleashed a global storm of Internet indignation. The hunter, Dr. Walter Palmer, a dentist from Minnesota, has been forced into hiding.

On the face of it, the reasons are not hard to discern: In an era of dwindling wildlife, proliferation of threatened species and large-scale poaching of elephants and other beasts, big-game hunting in Africa does not hold the allure it may have had in Teddy Roosevelt’s day. And Cecil was no ordinary cat.

The 13-year-old lion was a star attraction at the Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, out of which the hunters lured him with a carcass, and he wore a collar by which scientists at the University of Oxford had been tracking him since 2008. It was wrong and, according to the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, illegal to kill Cecil. Dr. Palmer, who reportedly paid more than $50,000 for the hunt, said he relied on local guides and did not know it was an illegal hunt. An official at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service said the agency is also investigating the case.

Humans are very selective in their attitudes toward threatened species, and obviously Cecil, a beautiful beast, is the beneficiary of very selective attention. And while critics and non-hunters are repelled by the killing of beautiful animals simply for bragging rights, hunters are not the main reason for the decline in the population of African lions — about 30,000 today, down from 200,000 a century ago. The main threat, as to many other animals large and small, is a vanishing habitat. Some hunters argue that they help conservation through their efforts to maintain the habitats of their prey.

These debates will not be ended by Cecil’s cruel death, but maybe something important can come of the public outrage. It should refocus attention on the many species that are in danger, particularly elephants, rhinos and other beasts being destroyed for their tusks, horns and other parts. President Obama was right on his African trip to forgo the usual safari and instead to announce new legal measures to curtail the transport and sale of elephant ivory in the United States.

The fury over Cecil’s death should also prompt some soul-searching among hunters who pursue African game, a large number of whom are well-to-do Americans. In one particularly dreadful practice called “canned” hunting, private ranches raise lions purely to trot them out to be killed by “hunters” for trophies.

Australia has banned the importation of trophies from “canned” hunts, and Botswana for one has banned lion hunting (Zambia, however, lifted its ban on lion and leopard hunting in May). Such measures could help reduce the kills, but the survival of many species will require far more shared responsibility than nations and communities are currently willing to accept.


Empire State Building Light Show: Endangered Species!

Empire State Building I

Dear Commons Community,

On Saturday evening, Travis Threlkel and his collaborator, the filmmaker and photographer Louie Psihoyos, will project digital light images of endangered species onto the Empire State Building in an art event meant to draw attention to the creatures’ plight.  Although the men refer to the event as a “weapon of mass instruction,” Mr. Threlkel explained: “We’re going to try to create something beautiful. Not bum people out.” He added later: “Hopefully, this is one big domino. If we can tip it, it would be great.”

On Saturday, using 40 stacked, 20,000-lumen projectors on the roof of a building on West 31st Street, Mr. Threlkel and Mr. Psihoyos, director of the Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove,” will be illuminating the night from 9 p.m. to 12 a.m. with a looping reel showing what Mr. Psihoyos calls a “Noah’s ark” of animals. A snow leopard, a golden lion tamarin and manta rays, along with snakes, birds and various mammals and sea creatures will be projected onto a space 375 feet tall and 186 feet wide covering 33 floors of the southern face of the Empire State Building.


Empire State Building II

The Money Behind the Albany – NYC City School Wars!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times has an in-depth article analyzing the moneyed interests that are fueling the public school wars in New York.

“Former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has been out of office for a year and a half, but his influence over New York schools is practically as strong as ever.

A group devoted to continuing his education agenda and founded in part by his longtime schools chancellor has become one of the most powerful forces in Albany by pouring millions into lobbying and adroitly exploiting rivalries in state politics.

The organization, StudentsFirstNY, and another group with a similar focus called Families for Excellent Schools have formed a counterweight to teachers’ unions, long among the top spenders in the state capital. This year alone, the groups saw major elements of their platforms come to pass, such as tying teacher evaluations more closely to test scores, adding hurdles to earning tenure and increasing the number of charter schools, measures all unpopular with the unions.

Among the backers of StudentsFirstNY are major donors to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, and to the Republican majority in the State Senate, two of the three parties to all negotiations. Emails and interviews show that StudentsFirstNY has been in regular contact with the governor’s office since his re-election.

At the same time, the two groups have become a major nuisance to Mr. Bloomberg’s successor as mayor, Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, who campaigned on reversing some of his predecessor’s policies and is friendly with the city teachers’ union.

The groups have delivered a drumbeat of attacks on Mr. de Blasio’s education policies in television advertisements, rallies where parents upbraid the mayor for not confronting what they call an education crisis, and weekly, or at times daily, emails to reporters. Amid this onslaught, Mr. Cuomo and the Senate delivered a rebuke to the mayor this year by agreeing to only a one-year extension of mayoral control of city schools. (By contrast, Mr. Bloomberg, a political independent, was initially given control for seven years, then received a renewal for six.)..

Jenny Sedlis, the executive director of StudentsFirstNY, said the group’s goal was to create a permanent organization to advance important education changes and neutralize the influence of the teachers’ union.

“Before we came on the scene, the pro-reform community would get together for episodic fights and then we’d scatter, and the U.F.T. was always there,” she said, referring to the United Federation of Teachers, the city teachers’ union.

“With StudentsFirstNY, there’s a board with a war chest that’s always there,” Ms. Sedlis added. “We’re there before the election and after. And that has to be reassuring for ed reformers who want to stick their necks out, and disconcerting for the other side.”

The group is so plugged into the capital that Ms. Sedlis has sometimes served as a go-between among different government offices, relaying messages and scouting information about education bills being considered. It has not hurt the group’s efforts that Mr. Cuomo and the Republican majority in the Senate are no fans of Mr. de Blasio.

Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for Mr. de Blasio, said, “When a group professing to support education reform opposes mayoral control of schools, it calls into question what exactly it stands for.”

StudentsFirstNY was founded in 2012 by Joel I. Klein, who had been the schools chancellor for more than eight years under Mr. Bloomberg; Michelle Rhee, a former Washington schools chancellor; and the billionaire hedge fund managers Daniel S. Loeb and Paul Tudor Jones. It receives some support from StudentsFirst, the national organization Ms. Rhee founded in 2010, but has its own board of directors and functions independently.

Mr. Bloomberg himself does not appear to be involved in StudentsFirstNY. An aide, Howard Wolfson, said that he had not given money to the group. Reuters reported in 2012 that Mr. Bloomberg had helped finance Ms. Rhee’s national organization, but Mr. Wolfson would not confirm that.

Mr. Loeb hosted a fund-raiser for Mr. Cuomo this month at his home in East Hampton, N.Y. He and his wife have contributed $139,367 to Mr. Cuomo over the past five years, according to New York State Board of Elections records. In the same period, Mr. Jones and his wife have contributed $75,000, and another board member, Carl C. Icahn, has contributed $50,000 to the governor.

Mr. Klein, who is now the chief executive of Amplify, Rupert Murdoch’s education-technology company, is still a board member of StudentsFirstNY. Neither he nor most of the group’s major donors would comment on their support, though Mr. Jones said in a statement, “Maintaining the status quo is unacceptable, and that’s why StudentsFirstNY and others are fighting for reforms that can give parents more choices, ensure that only the best teachers are in the classroom and make sure that the best interests of the children in the system are put first.”

This is a sad state of affairs for public education in New York. The article illustrates well political and financial agendas at play, neither of which will help school children.


The Chronicle Analyzes Possible Sale of Blackboard: Pearson?

Dear Commons Community,

In light of the Reuters report yesterday that Blackboard was being put up for auction, The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article (subscription required) analyzing potential bidders. Pearson emerges as a possible buyer as well as 2u, or an equity firm. Here is an excerpt:

“Jeff Alderson, principal analyst at Eduventures, said that there would hardly be a bidding war for the company, which is losing some customers to newer players such as Instructure. But he said that because Blackboard had reported strong sales in overseas markets and is working to streamline its operations and update its products, it might command something like a $3-billion-plus valuation.

Who might buy it?

Mr. Alderson guessed it could be a major textbook company like Pearson, which just sold the Financial Times for $1.3 billion, and so has the wherewithal to be a serious bidder for Blackboard. Or he said it could be a major technology provider such as Oracle, or a private-equity firm that saw an opportunity for further growth.

Blackboard was last purchased by Providence Equity Partners, in 2011, for $1.64 billion. If another private-equity firm did buy it, that might result in little change in the company’s products, since the firm would essentially be betting that the current turnaround attempt will work.

Trace Urdan, an independent analyst, said that companies that help colleges build online programs, such as 2U, could also be interested in buying Blackboard. “It could jump-start an emerging platform,” he said.”

Those of us interested in instructional technology will be most interested to see how this plays out.




Blackboard Learning Management Software is Up for Auction!

Dear Commons Community,

Blackboard, the giant provider of learning-management software, is up for sale. According to the Reuters, the privately held software company is seeking a buyer unfazed by an estimated $3-billion price tag. The company has hired two banks to conduct an auction to find such a buyer.

Blackboard was taken private in a buyout four years ago. Since then, it has faced increased competition from educational-technology start-ups.  A pioneer in education management software founded in 1998, Blackboard has seen its growth slow in recent years as cheaper and faster software upstarts such as Instructure Inc have tried to encroach on its turf. Since its launch in 2011, Instructure has signed up 1,200 colleges and school districts, according to its website.  

Blackboard’s majority owner, private equity firm Providence Equity Partners LLC, has hired Deutsche Bank AG (DBKGn.DE) and Bank of America Corp (BAC.N) to conduct the auction.



George Washington University to Drop SAT and ACT Admissions Tests!

Dear Commons Community,

George Washington University earlier this week joined a nationwide movement against admissions tests, announcing that it will no longer require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores.  According to The Washington Post:

“George Washington University’s new policy will go into effect on Aug. 1 and applies to both freshman applicants and transfer students. The university said in a statement that it came to the decision based on the findings of its Task Force on Access and Success.

“Members of the task force examined the value of test scores in understanding how a student performs at GW,” the statement said. “They reached the same conclusion as many other institutions: that the best predictor of academic success in college is a student’s high school record, especially their high school GPA. This conversation led GW to adopt a test-optional policy.”

Students are free to submit their SAT or ACT scores if they feel that the results accurately reflect their academic abilities, the university noted, but those who choose not to will face no penalty in the admissions process. 

The policy will not apply to home-schooled students, recruited NCAA Division I athletes, applicants to GW’s accelerated seven-year BA/MD program or students whose high schools provide “only narrative evaluations rather than some form of grading scale.”

The National Center for Fair & Open Testing, also known as FairTest, applauded GW’s decision, noting that 40 colleges and universities have adopted test-optional policies in the last two years, including Wesleyan, Brandeis, Bryn Mawr and Temple. 

“The test-optional surge recognizes that no test — not the SAT, old or new, nor the ACT — is needed for high-quality admissions,” FairTest Public Education Director Bob Schaeffer said in a statement sent to The Huffington Post. “Many independent studies and practical experiences have shown that test-optional admission enhances both academic excellence and diversity.”

A study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling last year found that at schools with test-optional policies, there was virtually no difference in cumulative GPA or graduation rates between students who submitted scores and those who did not. The study also found that non-submitters are more likely to be first-generation college applicants, minorities, women, Pell Grant recipients and students with learning differences, suggesting that moves like GW’s could help break down barriers to access.”

Congratulations GWU!


Chicago School Board Has New Leadership and Seeks Way Out of Budget Woes!

Dear Commons Community,

The Chicago Board of Education approved the sale of up to $1.16 billion of bonds for its cash-strapped school system and appointed new leadership. As reported by Reuters:

“The nation’s third-largest public school district is struggling with falling credit ratings, a big budget deficit and lack of an approved plan to ease escalating pension costs. The general obligation bonds will provide as much as $650 million in school facility improvements, $250 million in budget relief by restructuring existing bonds, and $300 million to convert variable-rate debt into fixed-rate bonds and pay banks to terminate swaps used to hedge interest-rate risk, according to a presentation to the board.

At a public hearing on the bonds, James Bebley, the district’s general counsel, said talks were continuing with banks over the swaps and outstanding debt. Downgrades by Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings in March triggered about $228 million in termination payments by the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to bank swap counterparties. Moody’s cut the district’s rating to “junk” in May. Earlier this month, Standard & Poor’s dropped its rating two notches to BBB, while warning another downgrade could come without a “credible” fiscal 2016 budget.

A spending plan is expected to be unveiled in August. School officials have said the budget will rely on $500 million in pension savings that have yet to be enacted by the Illinois Legislature and will incorporate a $106 million cut in state funding.

The board also approved a new leadership team announced by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel last week that includes his chief of staff, Forrest Claypool, as the district’s chief executive officer, and former electric utility executive Frank Clark to head the board. CPS has projected a $1.1 billion deficit in its fiscal 2016 budget, largely because of an approximately $675 million pension payment.”

We wish this great urban school district well as it tries to weather its financial issues.



NY Times Columnist Joe Nocera:  The Harper Lee ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Fraud

Dear Commons Community,

New York Times columnist, Joe Nocera, has an explosive piece today entitled,  “The Harper Lee ‘Go Set a Watchman’ Fraud”.  After moving to the top of the New York Times best-seller list, since it publication on July 14th, Nocera posits that “Watchman” is “one of the epic money grabs in the modern history of American publishing.”  Here is his analysis:

“… the Rupert Murdoch-owned publishing house HarperCollins announced just this week that it had sold more than 1.1 million copies in a week’s time, making it the “fastest-selling book in company history.” “Watchman” has rocketed to the top of the New York Times best-seller list, where it will surely stay for a while. And the Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal not only excerpted the first chapter on the Friday before publication, but it also gave its readers a chance to win a signed first edition of the book. Talk about synergy!

So perhaps it’s not too late after all to point out that the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” constitutes one of the epic money grabs in the modern history of American publishing.

The Ur-fact about Harper Lee is that after publishing her beloved novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” in 1960, she not only never published another book; for most of that time she insisted she never would.Until now, that is, when she’s 89, a frail, hearing- and sight-impaired stroke victim living in a nursing home. Perhaps just as important, her sister, Alice, Lee’s longtime protector, passed away last November. Her new protector, Tonja Carter, who had worked in Alice Lee’s law office, is the one who brought the “new novel” to HarperCollins’s attention, claiming, conveniently, to have found it shortly before Alice died.

If you have been following The Times’s cleareyed coverage, you know that Carter participated in a meeting in 2011 with a Sotheby’s specialist and Lee’s former agent, in which they came across the manuscript that turned out to be “Go Set a Watchman.” In The Wall Street Journal — where else? — Carter put forth the preposterous claim that she walked out of that meeting early on and never returned, thus sticking with her story that she only discovered the manuscript in 2014.

But the others in the meeting insisted to The Times that she was there the whole time — and saw what they saw: the original manuscript that Lee turned into Tay Hohoff, her editor.Hohoff, who appears to have been a very fine editor indeed, encouraged her to take a different tack. After much rewriting, Lee emerged with her classic novel of race relations in a small Southern town.Thus, The Times’s account suggests an alternate scenario: that Carter had been sitting on the discovery of the manuscript since 2011, waiting for the moment when she, not Alice, would be in charge of Harper Lee’s affairs.

That’s issue No. 1. Issue No. 2 is the question of whether “Go Set a Watchman” is, in fact, a “newly discovered” novel, worthy of the hoopla it has received, or whether it something less than that: a historical artifact or, more bluntly, a not-very-good first draft that eventually became, with a lot of hard work and smart editing, an American classic.

The Murdoch empire is insisting on the former, of course; that’s what you do when you’re hoping to sell millions of books in an effort to boost the bottom line.

But again, an alternative scenario suggests itself. Lee has said that she wanted to write a “race novel.” Though her first effort had some fine writing, like many first-time novelists she also made a lot of beginners’ mistakes: scenes that don’t always add up, speeches instead of dialogue, and so on. So she took a character who was a racist in the first draft and turned him into the saintly lawyer Atticus Finch who stands up to his town’s bigotry in defending a black man. He becomes the hero of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (Which is also why it’s silly to view the Atticus Finch of “Go Set a Watchman” as the same person as the Atticus Finch in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as many commentators have done. Atticus is a fictional character, not a real person.) Lee still wound up with a race novel, which was her goal. But a different and much better one.

In one of her last interviews, conducted in 1964, Lee said: “I think the thing that I most deplore about American writing … is a lack of craftsmanship. It comes right down to this — the lack of absolute love for language, the lack of sitting down and working a good idea into a gem of an idea.”

A publisher that cared about Harper Lee’s legacy would have taken those words to heart, and declined to publish “Go Set a Watchman,” the good idea that Lee eventually transformed into a gem. That HarperCollins decided instead to manufacture a phony literary event isn’t surprising. It’s just sad.”

If what Nocera says is true, it is indeed sad commentary about HarperCollins.


Two Teachers Praised for Their Heroism During the Deadly Shooting in Lafayette Movie Theater!

Dear Commons Community,

As government officials begin to analyze the events of another tragic shooting, this time in a crowded movie theater in Lafayette, two teachers are being praised for their actions during the carnage.  As reported in The Huffington Post:

“Two women are being lauded for their heroism during a deadly shooting in a Lafayette, Louisiana, movie theater Thursday night.

Jena Meaux and Allister Viator Martin are both teachers at Jeanerette High School in the city of Jeanerette, according to The Guardian. The women were attending the movie together and were wounded in the incident. Their actions saved lives, said Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R).

Jindal, who arrived at the theater around 9:30 p.m. — about two hours after police were first called to the scene — told local news station KATC that one of the women jumped in front of her friend to block her head from an oncoming bullet. The second woman was then able to reach the theater’s fire alarm and alert people outside of the theater that an emergency was occurring. A witness in a neighboring theater initially thought the gunshots were just part of a movie but realized something was amiss when he heard the alarm go off, he told CNN.

“Out of tonight’s tragedy, you are beginning to hear stories of heroism and self-sacrifice,” Jindal said. “Couple of teachers at a movie together, one of the teachers literally jumped on top of the other – may have saved her life. Literally took a bullet that could have hit the second teacher in the head. The second teacher was injured, was shot but not life-threatening. She is one of those being discharged tonight. Despite being injured, the second teacher was able to pull the fire alarm and help to save other lives.”

Cammie Maturin, president of the Iberia Association of Educators — the local parish chapter of the Louisiana Association of Educators — knew both women and was not at all surprised by their actions, she told The Washington Post.

“They did exactly who they are as people; saving each other, saving a whole lot of other people,” Maturin said. The pair were close friends and loved by their students, she added, saying they were in good spirits at the hospital Thursday night.

Two women, 21-year-old Mayci Beaux and 33-year-old Jillian Johnson, were killed when John Russel Houser, 59, opened fire at the Grand 16 Theatre, police said. Nine others were injured.”


Thomas Egan: Donald Trump is the Poison that the Republican Party Concocted!

Dear Commons Community,

Thomas Egan in his opinion piece in today’s New York Times, lays the blame of “The Donald Trump” phenomenon squarely on the Republican Party and the way it has operated especially with respect to its treatment of Democrats.  He states:

“The adults patrolling the playpen of Republican politics are appalled that we’ve become a society where it’s O.K. to make fun of veterans, to call anyone who isn’t rich a loser, to cast an entire group of newly arrived strivers as rapists and shiftless criminals.

Somewhere, we crossed a line — from our mothers’ modesty to strutting braggadocio, from dutiful decorum to smashing all the china in the room, from respecting a base set of facts to a trumpeting of willful ignorance.

Yes, how did we get to a point where up to one-fourth of the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower and Reagan now aligns itself with Donald Trump? Those same political marshals would have us believe he’s a “demagogue,” a “jackass,” a “cancer.”

They say he’s trashing the Republican brand. They say he’s “stirring up the crazies,” in the words of Senator John McCain. But Trump is the brand, to a sizable degree. And the crazies have long flourished in the Republican media wing, where any amount of gaseous buffoonery goes unchallenged.

And now that the party can’t control him, Trump threatens to destroy its chances if he doesn’t get his way, running as an independent with unlimited wealth — a political suicide bomb.

Trump is a byproduct of all the toxic elements Republicans have thrown into their brew over the last decade or so — from birtherism to race-based hatred of immigrants, from nihilists who shut down government to elected officials who shout “You lie!” at their commander in chief.

It was fine when all this crossing-of-the-line was directed at President Obama or other Democrats. But now that the ugliness is intramural, Trump has forced party leaders to decry something they have not only tolerated, but encouraged.”

Egan concludes that the Republican Party presidential candidates are in deep trouble until they “destroy Donald Trump and the vulgar, nativist element in their party that they nurtured — until it became a monster.”




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