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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Hard Times for the Evil Twin

Who is our evil twin here in academia? The media?

They too are in the business of putting together and distributing information, so they are our twin. They lack our analytical standards and put out all sorts of nonsense, plus are rich and drive out real knowledge with their fake kind, so they are evil.

Or so it often seems when a member of the university community watches ten minutes of silly cable news or Bill O'Reilly saying the most absurd, falsifiable things without fear of challenge. The media seems to specialize in ad hominem argument - Bill can prove the falsehood of any statement in the New York Times by saying "the VERY LIBERAL New York Times" six times a minute. They are also pathetic copy-cats, recycling the same stuff from one source that wasn't correct in the first place. I saw this when three articles in major papers covered the Mark Yudof nomination to be UC's president with identical paragraphs on how his high Texass salary might be a problem. It's really pre-medieval, or plagaristic, or subcivilized, or well, just not very academic.

But I digress. My point here is that we should love our evil twin better and try to help it. Not Fox News, exactly, but print journalism, which is getting shafted by ad revenue declines and the unoriginal revenue thinking of its new owners. David Carr had a piece on the problem yesterday. He stirs the usual stuff around into a big ambiguity pie so we can conclude there is no solution to the end of the independent information train that is essential to democracy. So don't read the piece for that.

There was this interesting passage, based on a good quotation:
John Morton, a longtime newspaper analyst, is more pessimistic. “The industry is meeting these challenges by cutting, by reducing the news hole and the people who fill it,” he said.

“Newspapers have lived through recessions before and come back strong,” he added. “My worry is that when things do turn around, they will be coming back in an environment that is more competitive than ever because of the Internet, and that after all these cuts, they will have less stature, less product quality and less talent — all of the things that they need to compete.”

While I was on the line with Mr. Morton, I mentioned that we had been talking about newspapers on and off for over a decade. That makes us almost friends, I said. But we are fast becoming the kind of friends who see each other only at funerals and wakes.
Ha ha ha. My point here is that the same thing is happening to public higher ed. Capacity has been hollowed out for twenty years. Quality is still OK in core areas. But we regularly "start and starve" new initiatives, and can't throw whole teams at any research problems, and can't rapidly upgrade when we need to. This chronic underfunding needs to be seen for what it is, a recipe for stagnation and decline.

How can we describe it so that folks will see college funding as the social crisis it really is?


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