San Jose State University Appoints Mary A. Papazian, a Renaissance Scholar, as New President!

Dear Commons Community,

San Jose State University announced that Mary A. Papazian will be its new president replacing Mohammad H. Qayoumi, who resigned after antagonizing faculty members by moving fast on several high-profile MOOC initiatives.  As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“A university whose last president plunged it into online learning, and met with some reluctance, will be led next by an administrator who is a scholar of English Renaissance literature. Mary A. Papazian, who has led Southern Connecticut State University since 2012…

In Connecticut, Ms. Papazian won praise for projects involving student success, town-gown relations, and expansion of educational offerings, especially in such technical areas as cybersecurity. Her new campus, in Silicon Valley, serves about 33,000 undergraduate and graduate students, and is the oldest public institution of higher education in California.

She succeeds an interim president, Susan W. Martin, who in August replaced Mohammad H. Qayoumi. Now an infrastructure and technology adviser to the president of Afghanistan, Mr. Qayoumi antagonized faculty members by pushing faster than they liked on such changes as increased online delivery of courses.

Ms. Papazian is the editor of two books, the first about the poet John Donne, who navigated the treacherous waters of religious factionalism during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I of England. She says she often cites to colleagues Donne’s sermon on advice found in the Gospel of Matthew: “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

“It’s very apt,” she says. “We should be in this work for all the right reasons — it’s a great mission, it can be transformative — but we also recognize that we do live in a political environment, and you have to be thoughtful about that. Higher education has a particular culture around shared governance that requires patience to ensure inclusion, while at the same time you hope to move forward the broader campus community and the external partners.” 

We wish Dr. Papazian success in her new position.


New York Times Asks NY Governor Cuomo Why Austerity When the State is Looking at an Ample Surplus!

Dear Commons Community,

As New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and the legislators finish up budget negotiations for next year, there appears to be a major gap in funding for New York City.  Hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts keep finding their way back into all of the Governors proposals. Some of his proposals look more like that of a right-wing Republican ideologue such as Scott Walker of Wisconsin.  His proposals to cut CUNY and/or Medicaid would be devastating.  The New York Times editorial today (see below) makes a plea for the Governor to remember his Democratic Party roots and stop punishing the City.  

NY Times Editorial (March 1, 2016)

“Negotiations in Albany over the New York State budget are hurtling toward an April 1 deadline with a cliffhanger question unanswered: How much damage will the budget do to New York City?

That is, how big a hole will Gov. Andrew Cuomo manage to blow in the city’s finances, by saddling it with hundreds of millions of dollars in added costs for Medicaid or the City University of New York, or through some other confiscatory tactics? How much harm will this inflict upon the poor, the sick and those striving to better themselves in college?

And a larger, more perplexing question: Why do any of this? Why impose an austerity budget that punishes the city when the state has ample budget surpluses?

As secretive negotiations continued on Wednesday night, in the usual Albany way, officials in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration were watching and waiting.

In theory, they had nothing to worry about, because the governor had given his word in January, shortly after his State of the State address, that the vast cuts to Medicaid and CUNY in his executive budget “won’t cost New York City a penny.” Which is hard to believe, since Mr. Cuomo has been insisting, in various and shifting ways, that the city will have to fork over hundreds of millions of dollars in spending that the state seemed intent on shrugging off.

In Albany, no budget is done until it’s done, and it’s hard to predict where the deal-making ends up. But the starting point, the executive budget Mr. Cuomo released in January, was colossally bad for New York City. It cut $485 million in state funds for CUNY, based on the administration’s false insistence that the university’s administrative costs are “bloated.” (Independent analysis shows that the CUNY system spends less on administration than most of its peers.)

The budget also shifted to the city — and no other municipality in the state — some of the rising costs of Medicaid, reneging on an obligation the state had assumed in 2012. City officials estimate the state Medicaid cuts would cost city taxpayers $300 million in the 2017 fiscal year, rise to $1 billion a year in 2022, and keep climbing.

City officials were recently told that the CUNY cuts were off the table, but they are waiting for the final deal, and watching for signs of other budget punishment: One troubling proposal was for the state to help itself to $200 million in city sales taxes each year, for three years.

Democrats in the Assembly have been pushing back at the moving targets — like Mr. Cuomo’s destructive Medicaid plan, which morphed this week into a proposal for $250 million in statewide Medicaid “savings,” a dubious search for “efficiencies” that would hit hard in New York City, where most Medicaid patients are.

There is a strange urgency to Mr. Cuomo’s austerity drive. The cuts he has floated are of the magnitude usually seen in times of great distress, like the recession of 2008. One billion dollars is the size of the city’s general reserve, its cushion against bad times. It is disturbing to think that bad times could be imposed at will, needlessly, by a governor who seems hostile to the city’s needs and Mr. de Blasio’s agenda.

Mr. Cuomo’s budget deal is likely to have other highly praiseworthy components, like a significant increase in the minimum wage — a necessity, long overdue. But the other parts of the budget — the punitive parts, intended to make the undeserving citizens of Mr. de Blasio’s city suffer — need to be abandoned.”

Let’s hope that Governor Cuomo stops this insanity!


Major Victory for Public Labor Unions: U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Rights to Collect Dues!

Dear Commons Community,

The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday rejected arguments to render agency fees unconstitutional in public sector unions in the case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. The Court upheld an appellate court decision that found the agency fee constitutional.  Thus, the law remains as it has for over forty years.  As reported in the New York Times:

“The Supreme Court handed organized labor a major victory on Tuesday, deadlocking 4 to 4 in a case that had threatened to cripple the ability of public-sector unions to collect fees from workers who chose not to join and did not want to pay for the unions’ collective bargaining activities.

It was the starkest illustration yet of how the sudden death of Justice Antonin Scalia last month has blocked the power of the court’s four remaining conservatives to move the law to the right.

A ruling allowing workers to refuse to pay the fees would have been the culmination of a decades-long campaign by a group of prominent conservative foundations aimed at weakening unions that represent teachers and other public employees. Tuesday’s deadlock denied them that victory, but it set no precedent and left the door open for further challenges once the Supreme Court is back at full strength.

When the case was argued in January, the court’s conservative majority seemed ready to say that forcing public workers to support unions they had declined to join violates the First Amendment. Justice Scalia’s questions were consistently hostile to the unions.

His death changed the balance of power in this case, and most likely in many others. The clout of the court’s four-member liberal wing has increased significantly. Its members — Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — can create deadlocks, as they did Tuesday, and they can sometimes attract the vote of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy for a liberal result.

Union officials said they were elated by Tuesday’s decision, but they remain wary of future efforts to diminish their effectiveness.

“We know the wealthy extremists who pushed this case want to limit the ability for workers to have a voice, curb voting rights and restrict opportunities for women and immigrants,” said Mary Kay Henry, the president of the Service Employees International Union.

A great victory indeed for public unions.



Georgia Governor Nathan Deal Vetoes Anti-Gay Bill!

Dear Commons Community,

Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) vetoed a bill yesterday that would have allowed open discrimination against gay people.  His veto is seen as a huge victory for the LGBT community and for businesses that had been threatening to boycott the state if he signed the law.  As reported in various media:

“Georgia is a welcoming state. It is full of loving, kind and generous people. And that is what we should want,” Deal said during a press conference. “I intend to do my part to keep it that way. For that reason, I will veto House Bill 757.”

The bill would have prevented the government from taking action against organizations or people with “a sincerely held religious belief regarding lawful marriage between… a man and a woman.” It would have opened the door to all kinds of discrimination against same-sex couples. A state-contracted counselor, for example, could refuse to provide services to people in a same-sex marriage. Taxpayer-funded adoption and foster care agencies could refuse to place children in their homes. Government employees, a la Kim Davis, could refuse to file official forms for same-sex couples.

Supporters of the bill have said it’s meant to protect religious freedom, and Deal was careful not to disparage the bill’s advocates. But he clearly had frustrations with people on both sides of the debate. The bill drew tremendous backlash from businesses, athletic organizations, people in the entertainment industry and people of faith nationwide. Companies like Salesforce and Disney, the latter of which brings in hundreds of millions of dollars to the state’s economy, had vowed to take their business elsewhere if the bill became law.

“For those in the religious community, some of whom have resorted to insults that question my convictions and my character, and to those within the business community, some of whom — not all by any stretch — have resorted to threats of withdrawing jobs from our state, they should know, I do not respond very well to insults or threats,” he said.  Deal said the bottom line was that he didn’t think the bill was necessary.”

Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, said in a statement. “Today, Governor Deal heard the voices of Georgians, civil rights organizations, as well as the many leaders in the entertainment industry and private sector who condemned this attack on the fundamental rights of L.G.B.T. people, and he has set an example for other elected officials to follow.” 

Congratulations Governor although I am sure that the prod from the business community helped you make this decision.


Google, Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft Getting Ready to Battle for Dominance of Artificial Intelligence and Big Data!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York Times ran two articles in the past three days describing the battle that is evolving among technology companies for dominance of artificial intelligence (A.I.)  and big data applications.  The articles suggest that fueled by cloud computing, companies like Google, IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft have entered into a new phase of competition for control of A.I. applications.  One article describes the battle:

“Many of the tech industry’s biggest companies, like Amazon, Google, IBM and Microsoft, are jockeying to become the go-to company for A.I. In the industry’s lingo, the companies are engaged in a “platform war.”

A platform, in technology, is essentially a piece of software that other companies build on and that consumers cannot do without. Become the platform and huge profits will follow. Microsoft dominated personal computers because its Windows software became the center of the consumer software world. Google has come to dominate the Internet through its ubiquitous search bar.

If true believers in A.I. are correct that this long-promised technology is ready for the mainstream, the company that controls A.I. could steer the tech industry for years to come.

“Whoever wins this race will dominate the next stage of the information age,” said Pedro Domingos, a machine learning specialist and the author of “The Master Algorithm,” a 2015 book that contends that A.I. and big-data technology will remake the world.

In this fight — no doubt in its early stages — the big tech companies are engaged in tit-for-tat publicity stunts, circling the same start-ups that could provide the technology pieces they are missing and, perhaps most important, trying to hire the same brains.

Fei-Fei Li, a Stanford University professor who is an expert in computer vision, said one of her Ph.D. candidates had an offer for a job paying more than $1 million a year, and that was only one of four from big and small companies. On the candidate’s list, one of the biggest technology companies was ranked lowest, in terms of both money and excitement, she noted dryly.

At the University of Toronto, IBM pursued a start-up called Ross Intelligence that makes a smart legal assistant, and extended a free offer to use its A.I. software, called Watson. For IBM, the financial payoff would come if start-ups like Ross generated sales, followed by a revenue-sharing arrangement. “No upfront costs at all,” said Andrew Arruda, chief executive of the start-up, which moved last year to Silicon Valley.”

The other article references an executive at Google:

“There is going to be a boom for design companies, because there’s going to be so much information people have to work through quickly,” said Diane B. Greene, the head of Google Compute Engine, one of the companies hoping to steer an A.I. boom. “Just teaching companies how to use A.I. will be a big business.”

This kind of change is what keeps Silicon Valley going. When personal computers displaced mainframe computers, it opened the door not just for Apple, but for companies making PC software for business, games and publishing. In the networking and Internet revolutions, venture capitalists invested in these new computing styles, and another generation of companies was born.

Over the last decade, smartphones, social networks and cloud computing have moved from feeding the growth of companies like Facebook and Twitter, leapfrogging to Uber, Airbnb and others that have used the phones, personal rating systems and powerful remote computers in the cloud to create their own new businesses.

Believe it or not, that stuff may be heading for the rearview mirror already. The tech industry’s new architecture is based not just on the giant public computing clouds of Google, Microsoft and Amazon, but also on their A.I. capabilities. These clouds create more efficient and supple use of computing resources, available for rent. Smaller clouds used in corporate systems are designed to connect to them.

The A.I. resources Ms. Greene is opening up at Google are remarkable. Google’s autocomplete feature that most of us use when doing a search can instantaneously touch 500 computers in several locations as it guesses what we are looking for. Services like Maps and Photos have over a billion users, sorting places and faces by computer. Gmail sifts through 1.4 petabytes of data, or roughly two billion books’ worth of information, every day.”

However, if history is to repeat itself, it is not necessarily the big well-established companies that will win the war.  Apple, and Microsoft in the 1970s/80s, Google, and Amazon in 1990s/2000s, came from out of nowhere to dominate new digital  technologies of their era.  

As an example, a start-up like Diffbot in Palo Alto, Calif., is willing to jump into the fray with industry giants under the assumption that there is plenty to figure out.

The company, which was founded by Mike Tung, a Stanford computer science graduate student, in 2008, recently raised $10 million to compete directly with Google. Even though Diffbot is still being run out of a home near the Stanford campus, Mr. Tung is thinking big.

“Our goal is to capture all human knowledge,” he said. “I would like for Diffbot to build an iconic company around data. There are companies focusing on computing, but there is no Amazon of data.”


Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan Promises to Pay Two Years of College!

Dear Commons Community,

Mike Duggan, Mayor of Detroit, earlier this week committed to a program that guarantees two years of a tuition-free community college education to every high school graduate.   It’s a commitment made possible through the Detroit Promise Zone, an authority Mayor Duggan and the Detroit City Council created last fall to dedicate a portion of tax dollars to permanently fund two-year scholarships.  The Promise Zone will provide a tuition-free path to an associate’s degree at a community college for a graduate of any Detroit high school – no matter whether private, public, or charter. The program will also enable many young Detroiters to begin their post-college careers free of debt.  As described in the Mayor’s announcement:

“The Promise Zone legislation requires a private organization to fund two years of scholarships before any taxes can be captured. In 2013, the Detroit Regional Chamber and the Michigan Education Excellence Foundation (MEEF) took on that challenge and created the Detroit Scholarship Fund. Over the past three years, the Detroit Scholarship Fund has helped nearly 2,000 Detroit high school graduates attend community college, tuition-free. The MEEF and the Detroit Regional Chamber will continue to fund the scholarships for the next three years until the Detroit Promise Zone tax capture is permitted in 2018…

…To be eligible, students must live in Detroit and have spent their junior and senior years at a high school in the city. The graduates can then go to one of five community colleges in metro Detroit: Henry Ford Community College, Wayne County Community College District, Schoolcraft College, Macomb Community College and Oakland Community College. 

The Detroit Promise Zone Authority Board is Chairwoman Penny Bailer, former executive director of City Year Detroit; Vice Chairwoman Iris Taylor, retired CEO of Detroit Receiving Hospital; Tonya Allen, president and CEO of the Skillman Foundation; Floyd Allen, principal of the Allen Law Group; Charlie Beckham, Group Executive of Neighborhoods for the City of Detroit; John May partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers; Hector Hernandez, executive director of economic solutions for Southwest Solutions; and Wanda Redmond, Detroit Board of Education member.

“A family’s financial situation is no longer a roadblock to our city’s young people getting the education that they need in order to live productive lives and lead successful careers,” Bailer said. “We are confident that Detroit’s future will be even brighter now that our city’s future leaders will be able to go to college at no cost.”

Detroit joins several other states and cities that have moved forward with free college programs.  They all point to a future when public community colleges and at some later point, public four-year colleges will become free for all students.


NYC Teachers Warned About Criticizing Standardized Tests!

Dear Commons Community,

As school districts prepare for the New York State standardized testing season in April, it appears that teachers in some schools are being warned not to speak out against the tests. Last year, about 20 percent of the students opted out of taking these tests.  As reported in the New York Times:

“Since the revolt by parents against New York State’s reading and math tests last year, education officials at the state level have been bending over backward to try to show that they are listening to parents’ and educators’ concerns.

The tests, which are given to third through eighth graders and will begin this year on April 5, were shortened, time limits were removed, and the results will not be a factor in teacher evaluations, among other changes.

On Monday, Betty A. Rosa, the newly elected chancellor of the Board of Regents and the state’s highest education official, even said that if she had children of testing age, she would have them sit out the exams.

The message, clearly, is: We hear you.

But in New York City, the Education Department seems to be sending a different message to some teachers and principals: Watch what you say.

At a forum in December, Anita Skop, the superintendent of District 15 in Brooklyn, which had the highest rate of test refusals in the city last year, said that for an educator to encourage opting out was a political act and that public employees were barred from using their positions to make political statements.

On March 7, the teachers at Public School 234 in TriBeCa, where only two students opted out last year, emailed the school’s parents a broadside against the tests. The email said the exams hurt “every single class of students across the school” because of the resources they consumed.

But 10 days later, when dozens of parents showed up for a PTA meeting where they expected to hear more about the tests, the teachers were nowhere to be seen. The school’s principal explained that “it didn’t feel safe” for them to speak, adding that their union had informed them that their email could be considered insubordination. The principal, Lisa Ripperger, introduced an official from the Education Department who was there to “help oversee our meeting.”

Several principals said they had been told that they and their teachers should not encourage opting out. There were no specific consequences mentioned, but the warnings were enough to deter some educators.

Devora Kaye, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said that teachers were free to express themselves on matters of public concern as private citizens, but not as representatives of the department, and that if they crossed that line they could be disciplined. Asked what the disciplinary measures might be, Ms. Kaye said they were determined case by case.”

This is an interesting development and seems to be indicative of a policy directive that is being restrictive of free speech. Testing is first and foremost an educational activity and it would seem that teachers have a right to speak their minds about it.

It remains to be seen how this will play out.  It is my sense that with the accommodations made by the NYS Department of Education, not as many parents will opt-out of the standardized tests compared to last year.  However, the opt-out movement will still be a visible force across the state. 


Responding to Brussels:  Clinton Right – Trump and Cruz Wrong on Fighting Terrorism!

Dear Commons Community,

In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Brussels, Republican and Democratic candidates weighed in on how to combat what has become the scourge of our times – the killing of innocent people for a warped religious cause.  The New York Times editorial today analyzes the candidates’ comments, comes down on Trump and Cruz, and commends Clinton for her measured intelligent response.  Here is an excerpt;

“…the two leading Republicans called for severe measures against Muslims. Donald Trump also reiterated his faith in waterboarding suspected terrorists and Senator Ted Cruz said the police must “patrol and secure” Muslim neighborhoods.

While the fearmongering and bravado seem to work with part of the electorate, those approaches — including the unconstitutional singling out of a religious group — would endanger national security by straining relationships with allies and alienating Muslims.

Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate, offered a smart, substantive rebuttal to Republican bluster in a speech at Stanford University on Wednesday, when she laid out ways to work with allies to defeat terrorist groups and cautioned against responses driven by panic.

“We can’t allow terrorists to intimidate us into abandoning our values and humanitarian obligations,” Mrs. Clinton said.

She took on Mr. Trump’s and Mr. Cruz’s repugnant ideas. Referring to Mr. Trump, she said the United States should not “conduct or condone” torture under any circumstance and added, “America doesn’t cower in fear or hide behind walls.” She said it would be a “serious mistake” to respond to the threat of terrorist groups by carpet-bombing, as Mr. Cruz has proposed. “Loose cannons tend to misfire,” Mrs. Clinton said…

…“It would be a serious mistake to stumble into another costly ground war in the Middle East,” she said. “If we’ve learned anything from Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s that people and nations have to secure their own communities.”

Loose cannons indeed.  Trump and Cruz, if either were elected president of the United States, would result into the savaging of people both the good and the bad, and throw segments of the country and the world into chaos.