Rob Jenkins on the Socratic Method and Neil Gorsuch!

Dear Commons Community,

Many of us use the Socratic method of questioning in our college classes to stimulate and provoke thought on the part of our students.  A common practice is to take opposing views to test student commitments to their own positions.  Rob Jenkins, a professor at Georgia State University, in a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, uses newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch as an example of why faculty need to be careful when using this method.

“Whatever you may think of Neil Gorsuch as a jurist — or of his appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court — there is one episode from his confirmation hearing that should give all faculty members a moment’s pause.

As readers who followed the hearing may know, one of the people who wrote to the Senate to object to his nomination was one of his former students at the University of Colorado Law School, where Gorsuch — then serving on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals — had taught as an adjunct professor. In her letter, the student accused Gorsuch of demonstrating bias toward women, based on comments he allegedly made in class. If you’re unfamiliar with the details, you can find them here.

Other former students, including women and self-described liberals, quickly came to Gorsuch’s defense, as did 11 of his former law clerks, all women. Some commentators pointed out that Gorsuch was merely utilizing the Socratic method, a common teaching strategy in law (and other) courses that seeks to draw out a student’s underlying assumptions and foster reasoned debate by asking pointed questions and assuming a contrary position. Gorsuch himself explained that in the particular situation raised by the objecting student, he had been using a case study from a popular law textbook.

Whether or not you believe Justice Gorsuch is sexist — personally, I don’t — this incident might send a slight chill up your spine. Because many of us also use some version of the Socratic method in our classrooms, in an attempt to stimulate critical thinking. What if a student takes offense to something we said — perhaps while we were playing devil’s advocate — and accuses us of some form of discrimination? On today’s hypersensitized campuses, where in many cases emotional responses have been privileged over intellectual ones, that has become a very real possibility.

It has actually happened to me on two occasions. Most recently, a student accused me in a private meeting of saying something during a class discussion that I had never said and taking a position I’d never taken. She was offended and, although she hadn’t wanted to bring it up in class, she felt she should do so now.

The issue was mainstreaming of students with disabilities in K-12 classrooms, which another student had proposed as a possible essay topic. During the ensuing class discussion, the young woman I was meeting with had asserted that all such students should be mainstreamed. I then asked her in class if she really meant “all,” or if she thought there were some students with disabilities so severe that they couldn’t function in a regular class or perhaps needed special attention. Later in our private meeting, she told me that, as a middle-school student, she had been misdiagnosed with a mild learning disability and segregated, even though she was perfectly capable of doing well in mainstream classes. Hence her awareness on this subject.

I appreciated her honesty and discretion but was alarmed that she had so thoroughly misunderstood what was going on in class. I explained that I had merely been playing devil’s advocate, asking questions to encourage her and her classmates to think more deeply about their arguments and understand the potential weaknesses of those positions so they could better defend them — and, most important, be better equipped to make a more persuasive case.

The meeting ended amicably enough, and I think she understood. But I was left wondering: Would things have turned out differently if she had gone straight to the dean and accused me of having a bias against students with disabilities?

In my more than 30 years of teaching, I’ve often used a semi-Socratic method in leading class discussions. Up until just a few years ago, students seemed to understand very well what I was doing. To my knowledge, no one got offended or misconstrued my words or intent. In the past few years, however, I have encountered more students who don’t seem to grasp that I am playing devil’s advocate in the classroom.

So, from now on, I intend to spend more time early in the semester explaining the Socratic method and how I use it in class. I may even add a statement about the Socratic method to my syllabus, perhaps in the “disclaimer” section that I already include. I can also see that I need to talk more about critical thinking. I do that quite a bit at the beginning of the semester, as I’ve written about recently, but perhaps periodic refreshers are in order. Or maybe I just need to stop more often — in the middle of a Socratic discussion — and remind students what I’m doing and why.

What I don’t intend to do, though, is stop using the Socratic method — or my own version of it — because it works. It helps students think more deeply about where they stand and why, understand the strengths and weaknesses of their positions, and gain a better appreciation for other points of view. Those are the cornerstones of effective argument. And if the ultimate goal is to seek truth — as I believe it is — then backing away from this highly effective method would be cowardly, not to mention a disservice to my students.

At the same time, I can’t help but regard the accusation leveled at Neil Gorsuch — apparently for employing a teaching approach that many of us use — as a cautionary tale. Because I also can’t helping thinking about one other thing: what Socrates’s enemies did to him in the end.”

The Socratic method is alive and well!


Lawrence Wittner on Start-Up New York!

Dear Commons Community,

Lawrence Wittner, professor emeritus of history at SUNY-Albany, does an analysis of the Start-Up New York Program.  Touted as a tax-friendly vehicle for opening up New York to commercial investment, a critical component of the program was private enterpprise partnerships with the public university systems in New York.  Professor Wittner in an op-ed piece for The Huffington Post, analyzes some of the numbers and makes the case that the program has come up way short.  Here is his take.

“The State University of New York (SUNY)―the largest university in the United States, with nearly 600,000 students located in 64 publicly-funded higher education institutions―has served an important educational function for the people of New York and of the United States. But its recent “partnerships” with private businesses have been far less productive.

In the spring of 2013, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, joined by businessmen, politicians, and top SUNY administrators, embarked upon a widely-publicized barnstorming campaign to get the state legislature to adopt a plan he called Tax-Free NY. Under its provisions, most of the SUNY campuses, portions of the City University of New York, and zones adjacent to SUNY campuses would be thrown open to private, profit-making companies that would be exempt from state and local taxes on sales, property, the income of their owners, and the income of their employees for a period of ten years.

Tax-Free NY, Cuomo announced, was “a game-changing initiative” that would “transform SUNY campuses and university communities across the state.” According to the governor, this program would “supercharge” the state’s economy and bring job creation to an unprecedented level. Conceding that these tax-free zones wouldn’t work without a dramatic “culture shift” in the SUNY system, Cuomo argued that the faculty should “get interested and participate in entrepreneurial activities.”

Despite criticism of the program by educators, unions, and even some conservatives, SUNY administrators and local officials fell into line. Reluctant to challenge the governor and oppose this widely-touted jobs creation measure, the state legislature established the program, renamed Start-Up NY and including some private colleges, in June 2013.

Start-Up NY quickly acquired considerable momentum. Hundreds of tax-free zones were established at New York colleges and universities, most of them on SUNY campuses, with numerous administrators hired to oversee the development of the new commercial programs. New York State launched a very expensive Start-Up NY television advertising campaign around the nation, with ads focused on the theme: “New York: Open for Business.” SUNY’s chancellor, Nancy Zimpher, proclaimed: “Nowhere in the country do new businesses . . . stand to benefit more by partnering with higher education than in New York State, thanks to the widespread success of Governor Cuomo’s Start-Up NY program. With interest and investment coming in from around the globe and new jobs being created in every region, Start-Up NY has provided a spark for our economy and for SUNY.” This was, she declared, a “transformative initiative.”

Although no one seems to know―or at least has revealed―just how much Start-Up NY has actually cost New York State, it has certainly been quite expensive. Back in 2013, the governor’s budget office estimated that it would cost $323 million over the next three years. That figure did not include the lost tax revenue to localities.

And what has it produced for the state? After three years of operation―2014, 2015, and 2016―that question is answered by the official reports of Empire State Development (New York’s official economic development agency). In 2014, Start-Up NY produced 76 jobs. In 2015, it produced 332 jobs. And, in 2016, it produced 757 jobs. Deducting 30 jobs apparently lost somewhere along the way, Empire State Development claimed a grand total of 1,135 jobs were developed by Start-Up NY.

Bottom of Form

Although 1,135 jobs might strike the observer as a remarkably small increase in the state’s total workforce of over 9 million people, it’s actually an inflated figure. According to Empire State Development, only 722 of these jobs could be considered “net new jobs.” Many of the participating companies did not really create new jobs at all, but simply moved their operations to another region of the state to avail themselves of Start-Up NY’s tax breaks.

Moreover, it’s far from clear that Start-Up NY’s tax breaks were necessary for businesses to hire these 722 workers. After all, 2014, 2015, and 2016 were years of recovery from the Great Recession, during which employment in New York State grew by 168,401 jobs.

What about the benefit of the program to SUNY? According to the SUNY administration, at the beginning of 2017, half of all SUNY schools had become sponsors of Start-Up NY businesses, with 201 campus “partnerships.” Although Chancellor Zimpher has spoken enthusiastically about the program’s “academic benefits for our faculty and students,” her examples are less than convincing. Yes, the participating companies paid SUNY a modest rental for their use of campus facilities. But this business use deprived SUNY faculty and students of their ability to avail themselves of these same facilities―including buildings, classroom space, labs, and advanced machinery and equipment. The chancellor also pointed to 134 students who had interned at Start-Up businesses and 121 who had gone to work for Start-Up firms. But these figures are not impressive when set against SUNY’s student enrollment of nearly 600,000.

Perhaps most significant, what is the academic merit of devoting university teaching or education to producing or marketing corporate projects? Shouldn’t the role of higher education be the advancement and diffusion of knowledge?

Of course, creating jobs is a laudable goal. But using public funds and facilities to subsidize private, profit-making businesses is not the only way to do it. For example, state governments could simply hire teachers, firefighters, construction workers, home health aides, social workers, health and safety inspectors, and thousands of other workers to do work that need to be done.

Overall, several questions arise from this history of SUNY-corporate collaboration. Does this “partnership” produce enough economic benefit to be worth the cost? Is assisting private business research, development, and sales an appropriate role for higher education? Finally, is using public funds to subsidize profit-making corporations an appropriate role for government? These questions are certainly worth considering before states rush into promoting further ill-fated university-corporate “partnerships.”

Interesting analysis!



Portland Hate Victim Destinee Mangum Thanks Men Who Died Trying to Help Her and Her Muslim Friend!

Dear Commons Community,

Destinee Mangum, one of the girls at the center of the stabbing attack in Portland, Oregon, has shared a message of thanks  to the men who died trying to stop the man who was harassing her.  As reported in The Huffington Post and other media:

“Mangum, 16, was riding a MAX train Friday with a 17-year-old-friend who is Muslim and was wearing a hijab, according to The Oregonian, when a man later identified as Jeremy Joseph Christian, 35, allegedly began verbally abusing the two girls.

Two men, Ricky John Best, 53, and Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, 23, intervened on the girls’ behalf and were fatally stabbed. A third man who confronted Christian, 21-year-old Micah David-Cole Fletcher, survived the attack.

In tears, Mangum told Fox affiliate KPTV this weekend that she wanted “to say thank you to the people who put their life on the line for me, because they didn’t even know me.” 

“They lost their lives because of me and my friend and the way we looked,” Mangum continued. “I just want to say thank you to them and their family, and I appreciate them, because without them we probably would be dead right now.”

Best and Namkai-Meche have received a wave of tributes from friends, family and strangers describing them as heroes for their selfless action.

“They were attacked because they did the right thing,” said Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler. “Their actions were brave and selfless and should serve as an example and inspiration to us all.”

Christian is known to authorities as a white supremacist and has previously been convicted of several felonies, according to the Portland Mercury. Before the attack, he was “ranting and raving,” Portland police spokesman Pete Simpson said.

A witness told KATU-TV that Christian had said to the girls, “Get off the bus, and get out of the country because you don’t pay taxes here.”

Mangum shared a similar account with KPTV, saying the man had told them to get out of the country and to “go back to Saudi Arabia.”

“He was just telling us that we basically weren’t anything and that we should kill ourselves,” she said.

She and her friend had decided to move to a different part of the train because they were scared and then strangers jumped in to stand up to their harasser, Mangum told the news station.

Christian was booked into a local jail Saturday and has been charged with offenses including two counts of aggravated murder, one of attempted murder and two counts of intimidation in the second degree.

The attack occurred shortly before the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan and has drawn condemnation as the latest example of anti-Muslim hate in a political climate where Islamophobia is on the rise.”

How sad!



Memorial Day 2017!

We thank our soldiers past and present for their service to our country.

We especially honor and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Mark Zuckerberg’s Commencement Address at Harvard: Calls for Universal Basic Income!



Dear Commons Community,

On Thursday, Mark Zuckerberg gave the commencement address at Harvard University.  He opened with congratulations to the graduates and their parents and poked fun at himself for having dropped out to found Facebook.  After commenting on his time at Harvard, he became serious about life’s purpose and the need for the graduates to think about what they will do to help humankind and the world.  He ventured into income inequality territory and echoed what a number of Silicon Valley titans of technology have been saying about redistributing wealth and specifically about “universal basic income.”  Here is a quote from his address:

“Every generation expands its definition of equality. Previous generations fought for the vote and civil rights. They had the New Deal and Great Society. Now it’s our time to define a new social contract for our generation.

We should have a society that measures progress not just by economic metrics like GDP, but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful. We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things. We’re going to change jobs many times, so we need affordable childcare to get to work and healthcare that aren’t tied to one company. We’re all going to make mistakes, so we need a society that focuses less on locking us up or stigmatizing us. And as technology keeps changing, we need to focus more on continuous education throughout our lives.”

Zuckerberg also commented on the big issue of technological change and the fact that in the not too distant future, many jobs will be lost to automation and artificial intelligence.   

“Our generation will have to deal with tens of millions of jobs replaced by automation like self-driving cars and trucks.”

He is correct.  In the next fifteen to twenty years, we will see millions of jobs lost or greatly modified because of technology.  These jobs furthermore will not just be in the factories and blue collar-sector but will also be in many white-collar and even professional occupations.  While we can question Zuckerberg’s predictions, there is an element of truth to them.  Most of the people in his generation and this year’s graduates will see major changes in their work styles. It may in fact be one of the most disruptive socio-economic developments of the next several decades.  He and his colleagues in Silicon Valley are putting us all on notice.

Below is the full text of Zuckerberg’s address.



Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg delivered the commencement address at Harvard University on Thursday. His full remarks are below, as shared on Zuckerberg’s Facebook page.

President Faust, Board of Overseers, faculty, alumni, friends, proud parents, members of the ad board, and graduates of the greatest university in the world,

I’m honored to be with you today because, let’s face it, you accomplished something I never could. If I get through this speech, it’ll be the first time I actually finish something at Harvard. Class of 2017, congratulations!

I’m an unlikely speaker, not just because I dropped out, but because we’re technically in the same generation. We walked this yard less than a decade apart, studied the same ideas and slept through the same Ec10 lectures. We may have taken different paths to get here, especially if you came all the way from the Quad, but today I want to share what I’ve learned about our generation and the world we’re building together.

But first, the last couple of days have brought back a lot of good memories.

How many of you remember exactly what you were doing when you got that email telling you that you got into Harvard? I was playing Civilization and I ran downstairs, got my dad, and for some reason, his reaction was to video me opening the email. That could have been a really sad video. I swear getting into Harvard is still the thing my parents are most proud of me for.

What about your first lecture at Harvard? Mine was Computer Science 121 with the incredible Harry Lewis. I was late so I threw on a t-shirt and didn’t realize until afterwards it was inside out and backwards with my tag sticking out the front. I couldn’t figure out why no one would talk to me — except one guy, KX Jin, he just went with it. We ended up doing our problem sets together, and now he runs a big part of Facebook. And that, Class of 2017, is why you should be nice to people.

But my best memory from Harvard was meeting Priscilla. I had just launched this prank website Facemash, and the ad board wanted to “see me”. Everyone thought I was going to get kicked out. My parents came to help me pack. My friends threw me a going away party. As luck would have it, Priscilla was at that party with her friend. We met in line for the bathroom in the Pfoho Belltower, and in what must be one of the all time romantic lines, I said: “I’m going to get kicked out in three days, so we need to go on a date quickly.”

Actually, any of you graduating can use that line.

I didn’t end up getting kicked out — I did that to myself. Priscilla and I started dating. And, you know, that movie made it seem like Facemash was so important to creating Facebook. It wasn’t. But without Facemash I wouldn’t have met Priscilla, and she’s the most important person in my life, so you could say it was the most important thing I built in my time here.

We’ve all started lifelong friendships here, and some of us even families. That’s why I’m so grateful to this place. Thanks, Harvard.

Today I want to talk about purpose. But I’m not here to give you the standard commencement about finding your purpose. We’re millennials. We’ll try to do that instinctively. Instead, I’m here to tell you finding your purpose isn’t enough. The challenge for our generation is creating a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.

One of my favorite stories is when John F Kennedy visited the NASA space center, he saw a janitor carrying a broom and he walked over and asked what he was doing. The janitor responded: “Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon”.

Purpose is that sense that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, that we are needed, that we have something better ahead to work for. Purpose is what creates true happiness.

You’re graduating at a time when this is especially important. When our parents graduated, purpose reliably came from your job, your church, your community. But today, technology and automation are eliminating many jobs. Membership in communities is declining. Many people feel disconnected and depressed, and are trying to fill a void.

As I’ve traveled around, I’ve sat with children in juvenile detention and opioid addicts, who told me their lives could have turned out differently if they just had something to do, an after school program or somewhere to go. I’ve met factory workers who know their old jobs aren’t coming back and are trying to find their place.

To keep our society moving forward, we have a generational challenge — to not only create new jobs, but create a renewed sense of purpose.

I remember the night I launched Facebook from my little dorm in Kirkland House. I went to Noch’s with my friend KX. I remember telling him I was excited to connect the Harvard community, but one day someone would connect the whole world.

The thing is, it never even occurred to me that someone might be us. We were just college kids. We didn’t know anything about that. There were all these big technology companies with resources. I just assumed one of them would do it. But this idea was so clear to us — that all people want to connect. So we just kept moving forward, day by day.

I know a lot of you will have your own stories just like this. A change in the world that seems so clear you’re sure someone else will do it. But they won’t. You will.

But it’s not enough to have purpose yourself. You have to create a sense of purpose for others.

I found that out the hard way. You see, my hope was never to build a company, but to make an impact. And as all these people started joining us, I just assumed that’s what they cared about too, so I never explained what I hoped we’d build.

A couple years in, some big companies wanted to buy us. I didn’t want to sell. I wanted to see if we could connect more people. We were building the first News Feed, and I thought if we could just launch this, it could change how we learn about the world.

Nearly everyone else wanted to sell. Without a sense of higher purpose, this was the startup dream come true. It tore our company apart. After one tense argument, an advisor told me if I didn’t agree to sell, I would regret the decision for the rest of my life. Relationships were so frayed that within a year or so every single person on the management team was gone.

That was my hardest time leading Facebook. I believed in what we were doing, but I felt alone. And worse, it was my fault. I wondered if I was just wrong, an imposter, a 22 year-old kid who had no idea how the world worked.

Now, years later, I understand that *is* how things work with no sense of higher purpose. It’s up to us to create it so we can all keep moving forward together.

Today I want to talk about three ways to create a world where everyone has a sense of purpose: by taking on big meaningful projects together, by redefining equality so everyone has the freedom to pursue purpose, and by building community across the world.

First, let’s take on big meaningful projects.

Our generation will have to deal with tens of millions of jobs replaced by automation like self-driving cars and trucks. But we have the potential to do so much more together.

Every generation has its defining works. More than 300,000 people worked to put a man on the moon – including that janitor. Millions of volunteers immunized children around the world against polio. Millions of more people built the Hoover dam and other great projects.

These projects didn’t just provide purpose for the people doing those jobs, they gave our whole country a sense of pride that we could do great things.

Now it’s our turn to do great things. I know, you’re probably thinking: I don’t know how to build a dam, or get a million people involved in anything.

But let me tell you a secret: no one does when they begin. Ideas don’t come out fully formed. They only become clear as you work on them. You just have to get started.

If I had to understand everything about connecting people before I began, I never would have started Facebook.

Movies and pop culture get this all wrong. The idea of a single eureka moment is a dangerous lie. It makes us feel inadequate since we haven’t had ours. It prevents people with seeds of good ideas from getting started. Oh, you know what else movies get wrong about innovation? No one writes math formulas on glass. That’s not a thing.

It’s good to be idealistic. But be prepared to be misunderstood. Anyone working on a big vision will get called crazy, even if you end up right. Anyone working on a complex problem will get blamed for not fully understanding the challenge, even though it’s impossible to know everything upfront. Anyone taking initiative will get criticized for moving too fast, because there’s always someone who wants to slow you down.

In our society, we often don’t do big things because we’re so afraid of making mistakes that we ignore all the things wrong today if we do nothing. The reality is, anything we do will have issues in the future. But that can’t keep us from starting.

So what are we waiting for? It’s time for our generation-defining public works. How about stopping climate change before we destroy the planet and getting millions of people involved manufacturing and installing solar panels? How about curing all diseases and asking volunteers to track their health data and share their genomes? Today we spend 50x more treating people who are sick than we spend finding cures so people don’t get sick in the first place. That makes no sense. We can fix this. How about modernizing democracy so everyone can vote online, and personalizing education so everyone can learn?

These achievements are within our reach. Let’s do them all in a way that gives everyone in our society a role. Let’s do big things, not only to create progress, but to create purpose.

So taking on big meaningful projects is the first thing we can do to create a world where everyone has a sense of purpose.

The second is redefining equality to give everyone the freedom they need to pursue purpose.

Many of our parents had stable jobs throughout their careers. Now we’re all entrepreneurial, whether we’re starting projects or finding or role. And that’s great. Our culture of entrepreneurship is how we create so much progress.

Now, an entrepreneurial culture thrives when it’s easy to try lots of new ideas. Facebook wasn’t the first thing I built. I also built games, chat systems, study tools and music players. I’m not alone. JK Rowling got rejected 12 times before publishing Harry Potter. Even Beyonce had to make hundreds of songs to get Halo. The greatest successes come from having the freedom to fail.

But today, we have a level of wealth inequality that hurts everyone. When you don’t have the freedom to take your idea and turn it into a historic enterprise, we all lose. Right now our society is way over-indexed on rewarding success and we don’t do nearly enough to make it easy for everyone to take lots of shots.

Let’s face it. There is something wrong with our system when I can leave here and make billions of dollars in 10 years while millions of students can’t afford to pay off their loans, let alone start a business.

Look, I know a lot of entrepreneurs, and I don’t know a single person who gave up on starting a business because they might not make enough money. But I know lots of people who haven’t pursued dreams because they didn’t have a cushion to fall back on if they failed.

We all know we don’t succeed just by having a good idea or working hard. We succeed by being lucky too. If I had to support my family growing up instead of having time to code, if I didn’t know I’d be fine if Facebook didn’t work out, I wouldn’t be standing here today. If we’re honest, we all know how much luck we’ve had.

Every generation expands its definition of equality. Previous generations fought for the vote and civil rights. They had the New Deal and Great Society. Now it’s our time to define a new social contract for our generation.

We should have a society that measures progress not just by economic metrics like GDP, but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful. We should explore ideas like universal basic income to give everyone a cushion to try new things. We’re going to change jobs many times, so we need affordable childcare to get to work and healthcare that aren’t tied to one company. We’re all going to make mistakes, so we need a society that focuses less on locking us up or stigmatizing us. And as technology keeps changing, we need to focus more on continuous education throughout our lives.

And yes, giving everyone the freedom to pursue purpose isn’t free. People like me should pay for it. Many of you will do well and you should too.

That’s why Priscilla and I started the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and committed our wealth to promoting equal opportunity. These are the values of our generation. It was never a question of if we were going to do this. The only question was when.

Millennials are already one of the most charitable generations in history. In one year, three of four US millennials made a donation and seven out of ten raised money for charity.

But it’s not just about money. You can also give time. I promise you, if you take an hour or two a week — that’s all it takes to give someone a hand, to help them reach their potential.

Maybe you think that’s too much time. I used to. When Priscilla graduated from Harvard she became a teacher, and before she’d do education work with me, she told me I needed to teach a class. I complained: “Well, I’m kind of busy. I’m running this company.” But she insisted, so I taught a middle school program on entrepreneurship at the local Boys and Girls Club.

I taught them lessons on product development and marketing, and they taught me what it’s like feeling targeted for your race and having a family member in prison. I shared stories from my time in school, and they shared their hope of one day going to college too. For five years now, I’ve been having dinner with those kids every month. One of them threw me and Priscilla our first baby shower. And next year they’re going to college. Every one of them. First in their families.

We can all make time to give someone a hand. Let’s give everyone the freedom to pursue their purpose — not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because when more people can turn their dreams into something great, we’re all better for it.

Purpose doesn’t only come from work. The third way we can create a sense of purpose for everyone is by building community. And when our generation says “everyone”, we mean everyone in the world.

Quick show of hands: how many of you are from another country? Now, how many of you are friends with one of these folks? Now we’re talking. We have grown up connected.

In a survey asking millennials around the world what defines our identity, the most popular answer wasn’t nationality, religion or ethnicity, it was “citizen of the world”. That’s a big deal.

Every generation expands the circle of people we consider “one of us”. For us, it now encompasses the entire world.

We understand the great arc of human history bends towards people coming together in ever greater numbers — from tribes to cities to nations — to achieve things we couldn’t on our own.

We get that our greatest opportunities are now global — we can be the generation that ends poverty, that ends disease. We get that our greatest challenges need global responses too — no country can fight climate change alone or prevent pandemics. Progress now requires coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.

But we live in an unstable time. There are people left behind by globalization across the world. It’s hard to care about people in other places if we don’t feel good about our lives here at home. There’s pressure to turn inwards.

This is the struggle of our time. The forces of freedom, openness and global community against the forces of authoritarianism, isolationism and nationalism. Forces for the flow of knowledge, trade and immigration against those who would slow them down. This is not a battle of nations, it’s a battle of ideas. There are people in every country for global connection and good people against it.

This isn’t going to be decided at the UN either. It’s going to happen at the local level, when enough of us feel a sense of purpose and stability in our own lives that we can open up and start caring about everyone. The best way to do that is to start building local communities right now.

We all get meaning from our communities. Whether our communities are houses or sports teams, churches or music groups, they give us that sense we are part of something bigger, that we are not alone; they give us the strength to expand our horizons.

That’s why it’s so striking that for decades, membership in all kinds of groups has declined as much as one-quarter. That’s a lot of people who now need to find purpose somewhere else.

But I know we can rebuild our communities and start new ones because many of you already are.

I met Agnes Igoye, who’s graduating today. Where are you, Agnes? She spent her childhood navigating conflict zones in Uganda, and now she trains thousands of law enforcement officers to keep communities safe.

I met Kayla Oakley and Niha Jain, graduating today, too. Stand up. Kayla and Niha started a non-profit that connects people suffering from illnesses with people in their communities willing to help.

I met David Razu Aznar, graduating from the Kennedy School today. David, stand up. He’s a former city councilor who successfully led the battle to make Mexico City the first Latin American city to pass marriage equality — even before San Francisco.

This is my story too. A student in a dorm room, connecting one community at a time, and keeping at it until one day we connect the whole world.

Change starts local. Even global changes start small — with people like us. In our generation, the struggle of whether we connect more, whether we achieve our biggest opportunities, comes down to this — your ability to build communities and create a world where every single person has a sense of purpose.

Class of 2017, you are graduating into a world that needs purpose. It’s up to you to create it.

Now, you may be thinking: can I really do this?

Remember when I told you about that class I taught at the Boys and Girls Club? One day after class I was talking to them about college, and one of my top students raised his hand and said he wasn’t sure he could go because he’s undocumented. He didn’t know if they’d let him in.

Last year I took him out to breakfast for his birthday. I wanted to get him a present, so I asked him and he started talking about students he saw struggling and said “You know, I’d really just like a book on social justice.”

I was blown away. Here’s a young guy who has every reason to be cynical. He didn’t know if the country he calls home — the only one he’s known — would deny him his dream of going to college. But he wasn’t feeling sorry for himself. He wasn’t even thinking of himself. He has a greater sense of purpose, and he’s going to bring people along with him.

It says something about our current situation that I can’t even say his name because I don’t want to put him at risk. But if a high school senior who doesn’t know what the future holds can do his part to move the world forward, then we owe it to the world to do our part too.

Before you walk out those gates one last time, as we sit in front of Memorial Church, I am reminded of a prayer, Mi Shebeirach, that I say whenever I face a challenge, that I sing to my daughter thinking about her future when I tuck her into bed. It goes:

“May the source of strength, who blessed the ones before us, help us *find the courage* to make our lives a blessing.”

I hope you find the courage to make your life a blessing.

Congratulations, Class of ’17! Good luck out there.


Hillary Clinton Skewers Donald Trump During Wellesley College Commencement Address!


Dear Commons Community,

Hillary Clinton returned to her alma mater, Wellesley College, to give a commencement address to this year’s graduates and their families.  She wasted no time criticizing Donald Trump comparing him to Richard Nixon.  Here are some  highlights from her address.

“By the way, we were furious about the past presidential election, of a man whose presidency would eventually end in disgrace with his impeachment for his obstruction of justice,” Clinton said, referring to her graduating class of 1969. (The House Judiciary Committee had approved articles of impeachment against Nixon, but he actually resigned before the full House could vote on them.)

“We got through that tumultuous time,” Clinton said. “We turned back a tide of intolerance and embraced inclusion. … The ‘we’ who did those things were more than those in power who wanted to change course, it was millions of ordinary citizens, especially young people, who voted, marched and organized.”

Clinton also decried the Trump administration’s budget proposal, calling it “an attack of unimaginable cruelty on the most vulnerable among us.”

When people in power invent their own facts and attack those who question them, it can mark the beginning of the end of a free society.

She also denounced the administration for its aggressive stance toward the media and willingness to embrace conspiracy theories.

“You are graduating at a time when there is a full-fledged assault on truth and reason,” Clinton said. “Just log on to social media for 10 seconds, it will hit you right in the face.”

“Some are even denying things we see with our own eyes ― like the size of crowds,” she added, taking a jab at Trump’s obsession with his inauguration attendance. “And then defending themselves by talking about ‘alternative facts.’”

“When people in power invent their own facts and attack those who question them, it can mark the beginning of the end of a free society,” she said. “That is not hyperbole. It is what authoritarian regimes throughout history have done. They attempt to control reality.”

Clinton ended her address by imploring the audience to stand up for free speech and human rights by registering to vote, marching in protests, running for office and promoting plurality.”

Hillary could have used more of this type of passion during her unsuccessful campaign last year.


Interview with Outgoing SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher!

Dear Commons Community,

Reporters from The Chronicle of Higher Education conducted an interview with outgoing SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher. In it, she provides excellent insights into issues important to all public higher education including funding, K-12 collaboration, New York State’s Excelsior Scholarship program, and women in leadership positions.  Below is the entire interview.


In 2009 Nancy L. Zimpher took one of the toughest jobs in higher education. As the 12th chancellor of the State University of New York, she would run one of the largest public-university systems in the country, one with a history of drama and leadership instability. The system faced steep cuts in state support because of the recession, and higher-education everywhere was entering a period of disruption: deliberate and otherwise.

Ms. Zimpher will step down at the end of June, and will leave SUNY in a better place. Her eight-year tenure is the longest of any SUNY chancellor since the 1980s. Money is still tight, and the 64-campus system is still unwieldy, but her administration has brought more cohesion and calm.

She has taken steps to make the system more effective and efficient, despite a failed attempt in 2011 to make some institutions share presidents. She has worked to improve teacher education, improve graduation rates, and to raise the profile of SUNY within the state.

As she departs, the system is gearing up for the start of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Excelsior Scholarship program, which will offer free public-college tuition to many state residents, and for the arrival of Kristina M. Johnson, the system’s 13th chancellor.

Ms. Zimpher spoke with The Chronicle about higher education’s need to improve, what it can learn from health care, and what she would have done differently.

What didn’t you get to fix that you wish you had?

We’ve progressed to a point where we know what needs to get done, but we don’t know as much about how to get it done as we ought to. We, as a country, have not moved the completion agenda. The Lumina report, “A Stronger Nation” — 7-percent growth in postsecondary credentials in six years. We’re stuck.

So if I could do one thing walking out the door, it would be to create a pathway to teach ourselves what is the real methodology for improving the outcomes that we are charged to move. It ought to be about everyone who comes to our door exiting with a degree. We just can’t move our economy, we can’t move our quality of life, without it. So it’s not something I “didn’t get done.” But it’s something we should be doing.

I have said to Kristina Johnson, what a great time to assume the chancellorship. If I had it to do over, I’d start now, not eight years ago, because now we have so much more understanding of how we can work effectively together.

It sounds like there might be a role for foundations or other outside players.

There are two sources that have enhanced my own understanding. The first is that I have worked for a decade to try to improve outcomes for children and youth. Particularly in my work in this thing called StriveTogether, this network of local communities across the country that have bought in to owning the low-education-outcomes problem, I have seen that the methodology of continuous improvement really moves communities to report improvements in everything from preschool to college completion. And it’s because they’ve adopted a methodology of breaking down challenges. When you set a new policy or a best practice, you don’t put it on a shelf and call it a day. You keep going back to it, keep working at it, keep making it better. Instead of staring at the big, awful low completion rate, they’re looking at, well, how does this move along?

The second discovery is what’s happening in health care. New York is one of a very small number of states participating in the federal Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment program, which provides a methodology to improve population health. Essentially it’s a different way of investing in Medicaid that incentivizes prevention measures. So in New York, physicians are getting rewarded for healthy populations instead of hospitals being rewarded for filling beds.

What should be driving us is a better- educated population, and we should be rewarded for that. There’s an immense opportunity for states to get more engaged in measuring what matters most and rewarding it. We do have a performance-funding system at SUNY, and I’m proud of that, but we’ve got to use that system to be that incentive for trying to do better.

You’ve done a lot during your tenure to change perceptions of SUNY. What can be done to improve public perceptions of higher education generally?

I don’t think we’ve done ourselves any favors in focusing so much on the lack of state funding. Every state is restricted in its ability to meet all the financial needs and demands that exist. And in New York, and most other states, the competitors, so to speak, are K-12 and health care. These are two things that ought to matter to us.

At the cutting edge of state allocation is a thing called fused funding, or hybrid funding. People say our funding model is broken because we’re not getting enough money in higher ed. But what if the funding were for the overall education pipeline, and we didn’t see our work as that primary and secondary education do up to grade 12, and then we start at 13? Our work cannot begin at 13. Our work ought to begin where the work begins, which is in early childhood.

When we funded No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, the federal government gave the money to the states, and the states gave it to the state education agencies. If you want 15 stakeholders to come to the table but only one of the stakeholders allocates the revenue for reform, you’re going to get what we’ve gotten, which is a divided, siloed effort to improve education in this country. My remedy for that is, next time we get the chance, the governor keeps the money and convenes the stakeholders, and we form an integrated effort to improve learning outcomes. That’s where fused funding could get its start — we’re funded to work effectively together to get the outcome everybody wants.

Most leaders in public higher education believe the level of funding that colleges got 10 years ago is gone forever.

It’s not coming back. So the exhortation to the state to give us more, in the same old way, is really not going to help things.

There have been a couple of responses that we’ve implemented in New York that I think are worthy. I do think our predictable tuition was a good thing. The downside is we can’t keep putting the burden on the students. But what was good about it is, first, it held tuition to a pretty reasonable level. Second, it was predictable. Third, it settled down the discourse for five years. We did not debate every year what’s going to happen to higher ed.

The second thing that New York did is this notion of helping us create an investment fund. Three years ago, we asked for $50 million, unrestricted, from all the nits and nats that the legislative process can bring to the table. And we got $18 million. But we were able to use that to coalesce other funds to create an investment fund of $100 million that we asked our campuses to apply for. And as a result we got $400 million worth of ideas from themes around completion and inquiry and engagement, which was our game plan.

Of course, the state should expect us to show that we are moving the dial, which I think we can do, because every one of these allocations is tethered to our performance funding. It wasn’t a ton of money, but it was undedicated, and it gave us the flexibility to incentivize changes in behavior. What industry doesn’t live with that kind of discretion?

Has the landscape for women as leaders in higher education changed during your time in this job?

I was a first dean and first executive dean at Ohio State, the first chancellor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, the first president at the University of Cincinnati, the first female chancellor of SUNY. A student who was shadowing me one day heard me introduced at a Rotary — first, first, first. And he said, don’t you get tired of being introduced as the first whatever? And I heard myself say, “When it doesn’t need to be said anymore, it won’t be.”

Improvement is very slow. It’s very slow in the C-suite. It’s very slow in corporate boards. It’s very slow in women running for elected office. And we do have a model in Europe that does set a quota for women on corporate boards to be 30 percent. And they meet it. Typically, I wouldn’t go anywhere near that. But the dial is moving so slowly that something has to give. And it isn’t just gender, of course, but within gender it’s moving even more slowly for women of color than it is for white women. And that’s not just true in presidencies and chancellorhoods. So what would be the jarring effect that would have to occur?

“Slowly” would have been the one-word answer.

Excelsior, the program designed to offer free college in New York, has been the topic of much debate. Is it going to do what people are hoping?

The criticisms of the framework for Excelsior need to be contradicted. The first criticism is that this is too tilted toward the middle class. What about the students with family incomes under $75,000? Well, we’ve been there. New York is one of the most generous states with regard to tuition support. A huge number of our students avail themselves of this opportunity.

The second thing is we should not expect that just because you received this generous tuition support, you owe it back to the state. But I don’t see anything wrong, really, with a return on our investment. Eighty-five percent of our students already stay in the state.

And the third criticism is this notion that we were mandating full-time enrollment. Well, the data clearly reflect more success when you are full-time enrolled. The policy has a flexibility quotient in it that gives you a year to be full-time.

So I think we can move the dial. That makes this the most innovative tuition proposal that’s been put on the table yet.

Can you share any further details of what you’re up to next, or is that t.b.a.?

It’s t.b.a., but I suspect the die is cast. I have been a champion for public education and for the integration of the education system. I don’t really think we have a system of public education in this country. I think we need one. And so my advocacy around the connectivity of higher ed to K-12, the thread that good teaching provides, that’s not likely to change.

Are you looking forward to a period in your life where everything you do or say isn’t questioned publicly?

I am so attuned to the fishbowl that I will probably miss it. But here’s why: I do think personal persuasion, advocacy, getting out in front of the issues is the best part of my job. And you have to take the bitter and the sweet. When you’re speaking to a room full of people who are recording every word, you’re very careful. You get smarter about it. You get better at it. Because the real point is to say something that matters. Say something that’s going to make a difference.

And be self-critical. That is one problem with my sector. We’re so good, and we like to talk about how good we are. What we really need to talk about is how we can get better.



Trump Administration Considering Moving Federal Student Loans from the Education Department to the Treasury!

Dear Commons Community,

In an effort to reduce costs and to manage better the federal student loan programs, President Trump is considering moving the entire student loan operation out of the Education Department to the Treasury Department.  As reported by the New York Times;

“The Trump administration is considering moving responsibility for overseeing more than $1 trillion in student debt from the Education Department to the Treasury Department, a switch that would radically change the system that helps 43 million students finance higher education.

The potential change surfaced in a scathing resignation memo sent late Tuesday night by James Runcie, the head of the Education Department’s federal student aid program. Mr. Runcie, an Obama-era holdover, was appointed in 2011 and reappointed in 2015. He cut short his term, which was slated to run until 2020, after clashing with the Trump administration and Betsy DeVos, the education secretary, over this proposal and other issues.

Elizabeth Hill, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, declined to comment on his departure or on talks with Treasury.

“The secretary is looking forward to identifying a qualified candidate to lead and restore trust in F.S.A.,” Ms. Hill said, referring to federal student aid.

A shift in handling federal student aid is being weighed as the Trump administration and Ms. DeVos consider overhauling the Department of Education. Mr. Trump’s proposed budget for 2018 slashes funding for the department by nearly 50 percent.

Moving one of its core functions to Treasury would significantly diminish the agency’s power. It could also alter the mission of the student loan program.

“The reason the federal student aid programs live within the Education Department is because that’s the agency that has as its goal increasing educational opportunities within the United States,” said David Bergeron, who left the Education Department in 2013 after 35 years. “That is not the Treasury Department’s goal. Its job is to pay for the business of the government.”

Scrapping or shrinking the Education Department has long been a popular Republican goal, dating from the Reagan administration. President Trump embraced the idea, saying in his book “Crippled America” that the department should either be eliminated or have “its power and reach” cut. In February, a House Republican introduced a bill to terminate the agency.

In his resignation memo, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, Mr. Runcie said that senior members of his department had met that day with Treasury officials and discussed “holding numerous meetings and retreats” to outline a process for “transferring all or a portion” of the student aid office’s functions to the Treasury Department.

“This is just another example of a project that may provide some value but will certainly divert critical resources and increase operational risk in an increasingly challenging environment,” Mr. Runcie wrote.

Moving the federal student aid unit probably would require congressional action. But even in a fractured Congress, it could win bipartisan support.”

If this transfer of responsibilities is made, there is a real potential to severely limit access to student loans.  Not good news!


In Bethesda Meeting with USDOE Institute of Education Sciences and ABT Associates to Develop a New Publication for the What Works Clearinghouse!

Dear Commons Community,

I spent the day yesterday in Bethesda, Maryland meeting with colleagues from the United States Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences and ABT Associates to kick-off a new addition to the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) series of publications.  Tentatively titled, Using Instructional Technology to Support Postsecondary Learning, this publication will present recommendations for educators to address challenges in using technology in their classrooms.  It will be based on reviews of research, the experiences of practitioners, and the opinions of recognized experts. The crux of the publication will be a set of recommendations that inform best practice in the use of instructional technology.  All recommendations will be supported by studies that have been reviewed against WWC evidence standards.

I look forward to working on this project that will last through late 2018.  


Google’s A.I. AlphaGo Beats Chinese Go Master!

Dear Commons Community,

For several decades,  the artificial intelligence (A.I.)  community here in the United States was obsessed with developing a computer program that could win at chess.  Google’s AlphaGo, a far more complex game, yesterday beat the Chinese Go master, marking another A.I. milestone. AlphaGo is a sophisticated A.I. software program that not only plays the game but learns from competition including competition with itself.  As reported by the New York Times:

“It isn’t looking good for humanity.

The world’s best player of what might be humankind’s most complicated board game was defeated on Tuesday by a Google computer program. Adding insult to potentially deep existential injury, he was defeated at Go — a game that claims centuries of play by humans — in China, where the game was invented.

The human contender, a 19-year-old Chinese national named Ke Jie, and the computer are only a third of the way through their three-game match this week. And the contest does little to prove that software can mollify an angry co-worker, write a decent poem, raise a well-adjusted child or perform any number of distinctly human tasks.

But the victory by software called AlphaGo showed yet another way that computers could be developed to perform better than humans in highly complex tasks, and it offered a glimpse of the promise of new technologies that mimic the way the brain functions. AlphaGo’s success comes at a time when researchers are exploring the potential of artificial intelligence to do everything from drive cars to draft legal documents — a trend that has some serious thinkers pondering what to do when computers routinely replace humans in the workplace.

Last year, it was still quite humanlike when it played,” Mr. Ke said after the game. “But this year, it became like a god of Go.”

Perhaps just as notably, the victory took place in China, a rising power in the field of artificial intelligence that is increasingly seen as a rival to the United States. Chinese officials perhaps unwittingly demonstrated their conflicted feelings at the victory by software backed by a company from the United States, as they cut off live streams of the contest within the mainland even as the official news media promoted the promise of artificial intelligence.

AlphaGo — which was developed by DeepMind, the artificial intelligence arm of Google’s parent, Alphabet Incorporated — has already pushed assumptions about just how creative a computer program can be. Since last year, when it defeated a highly ranked South Korean player at Go, it changed the way the top masters played the game. Players have praised the technology’s ability to make unorthodox moves and challenge assumptions core to a game that draws on thousands of years of tradition.

In the first game, Mr. Ke made several moves that commentators said were reminiscent of AlphaGo’s own style. Wearing a blue tie and thick-framed black glasses, the boyish Mr. Ke kept things close in the early going. By AlphaGo’s own assessment, it did not have a big statistical advantage until after the 50th move, according to a DeepMind co-founder, Demis Hassabis.

Mr. Ke, who smiled and shook his head as AlphaGo finished out the game, said afterward that his was a “bitter smile.” After he finishes this week’s match, he said, he would focus more on playing against human opponents, noting that the gap between humans and computers was becoming too great. He would treat the software more as a teacher, he said, to get inspiration and new ideas about moves.

“AlphaGo is improving too fast,” he said in a news conference after the game. “AlphaGo is like a different player this year compared to last year.”

Go, in which two players vie for control of a board using black and white pieces called stones, is considered complex because of the sheer number of possible moves. Even supercomputers cannot simply calculate all possible moves, presenting a big challenge for AlphaGo’s creators.

AlphaGo instead relies on new techniques that help it learn from experience playing a large number of games. This time, Mr. Hassabis said, a new approach allowed AlphaGo to learn more by playing games against itself. In the future, computer scientists hope to use similar techniques to do many things, including improving fundamental scientific research and diagnosing illnesses.”

AlphaGo is a small inkling of what lies ahead. In the next couple of decades, “god of go” technology will astound humankind with many more sophisticated and people-critical endeavors in medicine, education, and commerce.