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December 2010

Cornell Alum Attempts to Make a Living on the Internet

This is a guest post from Walter Chen, BS '04, as part of an ongoing series of posts about his experiences as a Cornell startup founder in San Francisco. He is the co-founder of Leasely, which makes online tenant screening dead simple. Walter previously contributed to Lincoln on MetaEzra. He can be reached at @smalter or walter@leasely.com.

I saved about $100k working one year as a lawyer, but with $50k in educational debt and zero income over the past three months, I'm in a situation in which I really should try making money soon. At least, I feel that way. Leasely will only start generating revenue once we're able to sell our dead simple online tenant screening services. We're busy jumping through various regulatory hoops with respect to the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act and credit bureau rules. I freaked out a little bit the other day -- you know, lying in bed, late at night and far from home, thinking, man, I need to make money real soon now or the dream will be dead.

There's the far flung dream of immense and immediate startup success. Reading about dudes that are younger than you who just made a zillion bucks can make a guy impatient. But there's an even more basic question of whether you're capable of simply making a living in a situation of your own devising. It might be a sad fact to face that you can only survive off the largesse of someone else who knows how to create wealth.

In something of a manic fit, over the holidays, while some guys were hanging with their families, and maybe other guys were working feverishly on their startups, I kicked off a few new websites to start my media empire side business. The concept is that my media empire will pay my bills while I keep working to make that apartment rental application process happen online.

I started CaptchaTV.com with a friend. Basically, go there to read some thoughtful analysis on Community and Mad Men. It was easy for me to start a StarCraft fansite named after myself, because I'm pretty good at the game and I'm an egomaniac. With a different friend, I started MagicalMoFo.com, which makes it painless to submit your startup for coverage, reviews, mentions, and links. I helped a third friend, a law buddy, build JudgeFederal.com, which will become the comprehensive source of information on federal judges, their law clerks, and the judging process. And there's one last secret site that hasn't come out yet.

So far from all those sites I've made about $12 maybe $4 of which came from ads and $8 of which came from sales. All my fears have been allayed. In about a week's time, those valuable internet properties have received about 3,500 visitors. Right now, the math isn't looking great. I'm hoping that without expending much effort, I can have the three content sites each at about 10k visitors per month, which is 30k total monthly. That's about $40/month. Not pretty.

The $8 of sales came from MagicalMoFo.com, and probably represented the first time I've sold something I created to a stranger on the internet. The problem there is that I'm not sure the site is scalable. And I don't mean scalable to the gazillion dudes out there with fledgling startups -- I mean whether I can even handle 10 orders per day. I went to a website where you can pay a Filipino guy $.50 per hour to get carpel tunnel for you. The service MagicalMoFo provides involves me hiring "SEO consultants" in India to do some cutting, pasting, and clicking on my behalf. I guess the way to go if I get any kind of volume is to hire some Indian guys to supervise other Indian guys. I already trust Pankaj, so he's probably a good choice.

The other day my co-founder Rodrigo regretted screwing around in college when he could've been building valuable internet properties (like MagicalMoFo.com) without concern for this boring life stuff. I feel the better for it, in some ways, though. The compelled resourcefulness and the sense of scrappiness -- those motivate. First, apartment rental applications, StarCraft, startup SEO, television criticism, internet wiki law, and some other thing -- next, the world.

Walter Chen | December 30, 2010 (#)

Merry Christmas To All

While the gang here at MetaEzra is busy judging the results from our MetaEzra holiday contest, we'll let E.B. White '21 take us away:

From this high mid­town hall, undecked with boughs, unfor­ti­fied with mistle­toe, we send forth our tin­selled greet­ings as of old, to friends, to read­ers, to strangers of many con­di­tions in many places. Merry Christ­mas to uncer­ti­fied accoun­tants, to tellers who have made a mis­take in addi­tion, to girls who have made a mis­take in judg­ment, to grounded air­line pas­sen­gers, and to all those who can’t eat clams! We greet with par­tic­u­lar warmth peo­ple who wake and smell smoke. To cap­tains of river boats on snowy morn­ings we send an answer­ing toot at this hol­i­day time. Merry Christ­mas to intel­lec­tu­als and other despised minori­ties! Merry Christ­mas to the musi­cians of Muzak and men whose shoes don’t fit! Greet­ings of the sea­son to unem­ployed actors and the black­listed every­where who suf­fer for sins uncom­mit­ted; a holly thorn in the thumb of com­pil­ers of lists! Greet­ings to wives who can’t find their glasses and to poets who can’t find their rhymes! Merry Christ­mas to the unloved, the mis­un­der­stood, the over­weight. Joy to the authors of books whose titles begin with the word “How” (as though they knew!). Greet­ings to peo­ple with a ring­ing in their ears; greet­ings to grow­ers of gourds, to shear­ers of sheep, and to mak­ers of change in the lonely under­ground booths! Merry Christ­mas to old men asleep in libraries! Merry Christ­mas to peo­ple who can’t stay in the same room with a cat! We greet, too, the board­ers in board­ing hoses on 25 Decem­ber, the duen­nas in Cen­tral Park in fair weather and foul, and young lovers who got noth­ing in the mail. Merry Christ­mas to peo­ple who plant trees in city streets; merry Christ­mas to peo­ple who save prairie chick­ens from extinc­tion! Greet­ings of a purely mechan­i­cal sort to machines that think–plus a sprig of arti­fi­cial holly. Joy­ous Yule to Cadil­lac own­ers whose con­duct is unwor­thy of their car! Merry Christ­mas to the defeated, the for­got­ten, the inept; joy to all dandiprats and bun­glers! We send, most par­tic­u­larly and most hope­fully, our greet­ings and our prayers to sol­diers and guards­men on land and sea and in the air–the young men doing the hard­est things at the hard­est time of life. To all such, Merry Christ­mas, bless­ings, and good luck! We greet the Secretaries-designate, the President-elect; Merry Christ­mas to our new lead­ers, peace on earth, good will, and good man­age­ment! Merry Christ­mas to cou­ples unhappy in door­ways! Merry Christ­mas to all who think they are in love but aren’t sure! Greet­ings to peo­ple wait­ing for trains that will take them in the wrong direc­tion, to peo­ple doing up a bun­dle and the string is too short, to chil­dren with sleds and no snow! We greet min­is­ters who can’t think of a moral, gag­men who can’t think of a joke. Greet­ings, too, to the inhab­i­tants of other plan­ets; see you soon! And last, we greet all skaters on small nat­ural ponds at the edge of woods toward the end of after­noon. Merry Christ­mas, skaters! Ring, steel! Grow red, sky! Die down, wind! Merry Christ­mas to all and to all a good morrow!

All of my best to you and yours this season.

Matthew Nagowski | December 24, 2010 (#)

One Thought on Opium

Longtime readers of MetaEzra know that I'm not one to indulge in sex and booze stories, to say nothing about an English major turned heroin dealer. It's a big world. And Cornell is a big place filled with all types of people, so something like this was bound to happen at some point. Let's just trust that she wasn't the recipient of any of my annual fund gift money.

But it does give one pause to ask just who was she selling to. Six ounces of pure heroin yields around 3500 doses of the stuff. And I certainly think that there can't be more than a handful of heroin users among Cornell students. The incidence of use among the general adult population might be around 0.2 percent, so that would be associated with around 40 students users at Cornell and 200 in the Ithaca area.

So that might be an upper bound to the Tompkins County heroin market, or so one can hope.

Matthew Nagowski | December 21, 2010 (#)

Bob Saget is a Pledge, Sort Of

I'll add a few things to Matt's earlier post about Bob Saget's made-for-TV pledging experience at Seal & Serpent.

Quick points:

  • The "black book" that Saget is forced to carry around to record information about each of the brothers is a common part of Cornell fraternities' pledge processes. More important than the actual information is the pledges' experience of talking with each brother and getting to know him a little bit better.
  • The system of points and demerits, or pluses or minuses, or whatever, is common and is probably as irrelevant at Seal as it is at any other fraternity.
  • I love Animal House as much as anyone else, and I've seen the movie at least 10 times, but the continuous references to the movie are a little irritating. It's frustrating as a supporter of the Greek system to have to argue always against this stereotype. Of course, naming one of your pledges "Flounder" doesn't help.
  • The campus looks great overall, but when Saget walked across the suspension bridge with one of the brothers, the fences made it seem like they were walking through part of a prison.
  • According to Cornell's anti-hazing policy, Saget's task of refilling water glasses at dinner is an example of hazing. So is Saget's having to make a pledge paddle, since the brothers at the fraternity did not have to do the same tasks.
  • I counted four versions of the Alma Mater.
  • The scene in which the brother asked his girlfriend to wear his fraternity pin reminded me of the Greek episodes which make lavaliering seem like a bigger deal than it actually is in most fraternities.
One important note is that Saget was made an honorary (not actual) brother of Seal & Serpent. I assume that honorary brothers are not formally initiated and, as such, do not learn any of the secrets of the fraternity or undergo its formal initiation process. Saget's initiation essentially took place in a full room during the toga party. The producers made the War Memorial ceremony seem like some sort of secret ritual, but I'm sure that Seal's actual initiation is much more involved. Point is, I hope that viewers don't think that Saget's experience is all that is required of a pledge. The formal initiation ceremony is often one of the most difficult parts of the process. Certainly, the secrets of Seal & Serpent were not revealed in this episode.

Although the episode uses the toga party as the culminating event, and I remember that the party was talked about a lot that weekend, these types of big events were not the most memorable parts of my fraternity experience. For one, unless you have Bob Saget there, most parties attract freshmen as guests with a few sophomores and juniors thrown in. By the time I was a junior, and definitely by senior year, the only time I would party with my upperclassmen friends was when I went out in Collegetown. Moreover, during my time as president, my social chair and I came to loathe open parties. So many things can - and did - go wrong during big parties, and they really weren't too much fun when you had to talk to inspectors and police, send people to the hospital, clean up, and manage everything going on in the house.

The real fun of being in a fraternity is just the experience of living with some of your closest friends. Saget hits on this dynamic a little bit at the end, when he's sitting on the roof with a few of the brothers. These kinds of interpersonal connections are more meaningful and more lasting than open parties.

Still, this was a really cool experience for Seal & Serpent, and (unlike as was rumored) they didn't have to reveal any secrets for the episode. If Saget wants to make a sequel episode in which he receives more serious hazing, he can contact Mr. Elkin's fraternity.

Elie Bilmes | December 20, 2010 (#)

A Joke On Fair Cornell

Seth Meyers, of course, is a Northwestern Wildcat, and brilliantly manages to make the real joke on Harvard:

Matthew Nagowski | December 19, 2010 (#)

University Archives at Center of Albany Bickering

In a curious incident of Albany-style pork, outgoing Governor David Paterson has earmarked a quarter million dollars to Cornell to archive his papers from his governorship.

New York State is one of the few states in the country to not have strict archival rules in place, and in allocating the funds to Cornell, Paterson has actually vetoed a law that would have required all future executive-office papers to be archived at the New York State Archives, along with such governors as Al Smith, George Clinton, and FDR.

Needless to say, a lot in Albany aren't happy about Paterson's veto, which they note is costing the state money:

Gov. David Paterson's decision to archive his papers at Cornell University came with a $250,000 grant the state's official archivist said could have been avoided, and no guarantee of when and how the documents will be made public.

"Had they come here, the taxpayers wouldn't have seen any extra expense," said Christine Ward, who maintains the papers of governors Alfred E. Smith and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the Cultural Education Building on Madison Avenue.

"The governor's records would have been included along with all the other records being transitioned," Ward said. "I have many colleagues at Cornell University in the archives there and they are a highly respected archival organization, and I respect them. But I am always concerned, as a general rule, when records that are public records go out of public custody."

The incident raises a lot of curious questions as to not only: 1) why Paterson would veto the bill (does he have anything to hide?), and 2) why did Paterson pick Cornell, of all places? After all, he's from downstate and attended Columbia.

To be sure, Paterson seems to have developed an affinity for Ithaca and Cornell over the course of his tenure in Albany: his daughter attended Ithaca College and Paterson frequently makes appearances at things like Cornell's Sy Katz parade in Manhattan.

But in the spirit of cutting the bloat out of Albany (and being a Cornell homer), here's an idea: disband the New York State Archives and store all of the material at Cornell. Cornell, as the state's land grant institution, is the perfect repository for such papers.

Matthew Nagowski | December 19, 2010 (#)

Jerk Cornell Alum Tries to Build Startup Based on Caring

This is a guest post from Walter Chen, BS '04, as part of an ongoing series of posts about his experiences as a Cornell startup founder in San Francisco. He is the co-founder of Leasely, which makes online tenant screening dead simple.

I've never been a particularly successful student. My high school grades were bad enough that at some point, by dad broached the subject of community college. My cousin Eric was a Marshall Scholar and got his Ph.D from Oxford in Mechanical Engineering. Once we were chatting, and Eric leaned in and told me his secret. He said, "Pretend like you care."

When I was just starting out with Leasely, I described the concept to Kevin, a close friend of mine. I told him about the product from a few different angles. I said it was as simple as taking a process from pen and paper to the internet. I also compared it to a common application for apartments that high school students have for colleges. He said, "It sounds like a great opportunity." "But," he added, "I'm personally not looking for opportunity -- I'm looking for inspiration."

One dominant analogy playing itself out on the web right now is that of customer happiness as business development. I think it would be tough to have that maniacal drive to make customers happy without caring for them and being inspired to help them through technology. People like Tony Hsieh and Steve Jobs are showing dweebs like myself how technology should be a means to the end goal of providing a great user experience.

When I was in college, I remember some guy happened to walk by my open dorm room door and did a double take. He asked, "Did I see you in Goldwin Smith last week yelling at your English professor?" "Probably!" I said. I also got into it with my technical writing professor because he thought I mocked him openly in class. I did regret my contentiousness once -- I argued at length with a computer science professor for giving me a B+ after I had gotten a 100 on every exam and assignment before doing poorly on the final project. I didn't have much of a leg to stand on -- my program took about 8 minutes to launch when it should've taken a second or two -- and it didn't work.

It seems like young programmers these days are far more business savvy, and I imagine that their arguments are less about, say, how nice functional programming is, and more about how to get customers coming back to their site for more. I know that programmers and computer scientists have a heritage of lionizing the outcast and rebel, and it's hard to do your own thing without financial independence. In establishing my new venture, I'm forced to move away from my previously combative instincts and instead focus on the needs to the customer. To my surprise, I don't have to take Eric's advice here; with both economic independence and pride on the line, I do genuinely care.

Walter Chen | December 16, 2010 (#)

Things That Can Boil My Big Red Blood

'Tis the season to be jolly. But alas, there have still been some things that have been getting underneath my skin recently. Here's a non-exhaustive list:

1) Calling unpaid alumni leadership 'volunteers'. What's in a name? Not much. But there's something a bit demoralizing about how the alumni office refers to unpaid club presidents, class correspondents, college alumni board chairs, etc., as volunteers. Are the leaders of student organizations considered to be volunteers? Nope. And neither should alumni.

It's not like we're volunteering our time for the local soup kitchen. Sure, we're volunteering our time and effort, but it's so much more than that. We're engaging and leading a community that we love. If you want to get technical, everybody on the Board of Trustees is an unpaid volunteer too. But I don't think anybody is going to refer to Meinig as a volunteer anytime soon. And besides, Chris Marshall is the secretary of the Cornell Alumni Association. So he works for us.

2) Referring to a singular alumnus or alumna as a plural alumni.

Latin may be an elitist language more befitting the folks at places like Harvard and Yale. But that doesn't mean Cornellians should be uneducated about its use.

3) Fraternity brothers who denigrate other fraternities.

I wasn't in a fraternity, and I'm often of a 'plague on both your houses' mindset, but when you have graduating seniors like Andrew Elkin engaging in antics more befitting a middle-schooler, it really makes you wonder what type of value-added the Greek system is providing campus. Here's Elkin taking a back-handed swipe at Seal and Serpent in the Sun's coverage of Bob Saget's Cornell television show:

Andrew Elkin ’11 watched the airing of the episode on Tuesday. Though he was not concerned with the portrayal of the Society, he was more concerned with its representation of Cornell and the Greek system.

“There are high school students across the country that watch that and to them, this is the Cornell Greek system and that’s just unfortunate,” said Elkin, a member of Phi Gamma Delta.

Would Elkin rather have had Seal and Serpent members binge drinking and date-raping freshman girls on television? Or maybe calling each other bro and texting each other 'HMU' while bragging about how wasted they got last weekend? Or was he just disappointed that the brothers didn't know how to find the prime factorization of 42? Inquiring minds would like to know.

4) Roughly 6500 people have read MetaEzra for one reason or the other in the last few weeks. But we still have only received a handful of submissions for MetaEzra's holiday contest -- 161 things that every Cornell alumnus/a must do.

Enough. That's the real reason for this list. Stop trolling Facebook and IvyGate and submit your entries today!

Matthew Nagowski | December 15, 2010 (#)

Revisiting the Budget Model

InsideHigherEd is running a story today on the endless debate in higher education administration: should university budgets be centralized or decentralized? As MetaEzra readers know, Cornell, perhaps possessing one of the most complicated budgets in the country due to its unique convergence of public and private funds, has recently planned for a more centralized budget model, and IHE picks up on the story:

Even higher education’s biggest proponents concede that it is an enterprise often resistant to change, and it’s little wonder that fundamental changes to budgetary strategy are among the most difficult to sell. That difficulty became apparent early this year at Cornell, where recommendations from a budget task force that seemed to argue for greater centralization received mixed reviews.

“You’re essentially undoing the decentralization that has made Cornell the great institution that it is,” said John Bishop, associate professor of human resource studies in the ILR School. “The provost gets the power to kill off a campus if he wants to and to do whatever he wants.”

In a Friday interview, Bishop told Inside Higher Ed that he worried a centralized model might involve high-level administrators in decisions on hiring, which are best left to experts in their fields. Moreover, there are healthy incentives for colleges and schools to pull their own weight in a decentralized system, he said.

Bishop is unable to argue the counter-factual, however, and it's possible that Cornell could be an even greater institution if there was more cooperation, say, in public health research and programs across the colleges. As I've written before there can be very high costs to decentralization.

“If [schools] are successful, they should continue,” Bishop said. “If they’re not, then the provost should decide, 'I can’t subsidize these guys so they are going to go down.' ”

Bishop's comment is also striking because as a contract college professor he surely knows that four of Cornell's schools would not be 'pulling their own weight' were it not for funding from the state of New York. And anybody have any thoughts as to how much student demand there would be for ILR were it not for the discounted tuition?

At any rate, the article goes on to report that Cornell still hasn't figured out how it's going to implement its centralized budget process just yet:

The fears Bishop and others expressed have not come to fruition at Cornell, because the university hasn’t adopted the task force’s recommendations, said Elmira Mangum, Cornell’s vice president for budget and planning. At the same time, the university is reviewing its budget policies and aiming to develop a system that is more transparent and standardized across colleges, she said.

“We’re still wrestling with this on campus in terms of what we can do,” she said. “It’s by no means settled yet. I wish it was.”

Because several of Cornell’s colleges are state-supported, the university's budgetary options are necessarily limited. The four state-supported colleges are statutorily obligated to retain their own tuition revenues, necessarily instilling those units with one of the hallmarks of an RCM system. At the same time, Mangum says that only the law school and the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management function independently as “tubs,” controlling revenues and expenditures independently.

“I think what most people want to know is that they will be treated fairly, and they can understand [the budget process] and they will be accountable,” Mangum said.

Economic pressures, she added, are another incentive for rethinking how budgeting is done.

“I think that’s probably what is [compelling] a lot of people to examine how they actually allocate their resources,” she said, “and on what basis they should allocate those resources.”

Let's hope that examination comes sooner rather than later.

Matthew Nagowski | December 13, 2010 (#)

Most Students Who Turn Down Cornell Attend Non-Top Schools

Back in August, MetaEzra was the first to break the news that Cornell would begin matching the financial aid packages for students accepted at other Ivies. At the time, we noted that the policy was both a merit-aid policy in disguise and an attempt to get around the Ivy League's crack-down on Cornell's enhanced need-based aid offerings for athletes. And now the Chronicle is reporting about the latest evolution in Cornell's financial aid policy:

"We're explicitly saying if you have a better aid offer from another Ivy institution, bring it to us, and we'll give you more grant aid. It won't be loans," said Tom Keane, director of financial aid for scholarships and policy analysis.

"While we do not have hard evidence that financial aid was the primary factor, we think it is safe to assume that net price could be one of the top five factors," Keane said.

Cornell has no way of knowing how many students will take the university up on its offer. Thus, the range of anticipated costs is wide, from $800,000 to $1.8 million in the first year, and $2.8 million to $7.2 million over four years. Cornell has not yet announced its plan to pay for the added costs associated with the policy; Keane said fundraising is likely to play a role.

Without the new policy, some families would have paid up to $100,000 to attend Cornell rather than one of its competitors. For example, a family who earns $250,000 a year would not have qualified for aid from Cornell to pay for the $55,000 price tag. But the same family would have paid less than half that, or $25,000, for its student to go to Harvard, Keane said. "Now, we're saying that student will pay $25,000 to go to Cornell and get $30,000 in aid," he said.

The article is noteworthy not only for discussing how much the new plan may cost the University, but also for explicitly detailing where students who turn down Cornell end-up attending. Here's a chart I put together:

It's impressive to note that the majority of students who turn down Cornell do not end up attending other 'top schools'. Of course, this is a pretty limited definition of top schools, and excludes places like Northwestern, Berkeley, Williams, Chicago, or Notre Dame. But so does the new financial aid policy, for the likely reason that those schools don't offer better need-based financial aid, but better merit-based financial aid. And Cornell can't compete with merit policy offers as an Ivy League rule.

Matthew Nagowski | December 11, 2010 (#)

Cornell Alum Newly Minted CEO of Unrenowned Silicon Valley Startup

This is a guest post from Walter Chen, BS '04, as part of an ongoing series of posts about his experiences as a Cornell startup founder in San Francisco. He is the co-founder of Leasely, which makes online tenant screening dead simple. Walter previously contributed to Lincoln on MetaEzra.

My dad's a mathematician, and he can be stern. When I was applying to college, I asked my dad at dinner, "What do you think about Cornell?" A guy a year older than me had gone there from my high school. "It's overrated," he said. "Well that's where I'm going!" I replied. I applied early sight-unseen, got in, and off I went to frosty Ithaca, New York.

I had this thought when I was in high school, like, "Uh oh, in college, I'm expected to pick one thing and study it. How will I be able to do that when I hate everything?" Driving around my hometown before freshman orientation, I figured that computer science would be my major because that was the only high school class I didn't sleep in. My dad had been worried that Ithaca was geographically situated too far from Silicon Valley, but was mollified by a Cornell admissions person who told him that half the CS graduating class in 2000 were CEOs. I don't remember any CEOs from my graduating class.

I didn't know much back in my high school days. I thought about applying to USC to be near Silicon Valley and date hot snobby girls. Well USC has a great football team with lots of tradition and cool colors. That's the same reason I liked Michigan growing up. I remember talking to my older cousin Mike about where he'd go to college. I said, "You should go to Michigan because they have a great football team with lots of tradition and cool colors." Mike said, "I'm thinking of going to Cornell." I said, "Where?"

After Cornell, I went to Michigan for law school (following in the footsteps of my idol, Ann Coulter), then I had a year in Detroit clerking for a judge, and then a year in New York City working at a law firm. Now I'm in San Francisco, working on my own startup with a few of my buddies. Earlier today, I went to buy some pricey health insurance because I spent half the day yesterday first discovering, and then freaking out about necrotizing fasciitis (also known as "flesh-eating bacteria"). The insurance agent asked me what my current occupation is. That's a long way of saying -- I'm finally a CEO.

The managing partner at my old law firm had worked his way up in the prosecutor's office in the Southern District of New York, had made partner at the big important New York law firm of Cleary Gottlieb, and used to be General Counsel at 3M. I founded my startup in a day and then I told him, "Hey, now we're both General Counsels!" He graciously wished me well without diminishing my accomplishment.

Picking a college was just a shot in the dark for me, but more than ever what it's shaping into is a band of fellow travelers. As a startup, I feel more alone than ever without the support of an institution, its prestige and history, and its people and processes. My insurance agent gave me an apple to eat for my walk home because she figured that I was poor. But what I have as a result of my associations with fancy institutions is not a name for strangers to know but friends and friendly people with a shared past wanting to see me succeed.

Check out my upcoming series of posts to follow the harrowing life of a Cornell kid doing the startup thing in the San Francisco Bay Area. And if you want up-to-the-minute updates, then follow me on Twitter. I can be reached by email at walter@leasely.com.

Walter Chen | December 10, 2010 (#)

Bob Saget and Seal and Serpent

I had completely forgotten about Bob Saget's television show featuring the Seal and Serpent fraternity until MetaEzra reader AB reminded us of the show and the fact that the entire episode is available for free on A&E's website. AB writes:

One thing bugged me about the show: a few minutes in, one of the brothers says that 42 is two times two to the third. But of course that's wrong. Two times two to the third is 16. 42's prime factorization is 2*3*7. Bad math, or bad editing?

The sloppy math from frat member '42' in not only an insult to the spirit of Douglas Adams but it is also ironic considering elsewhere in the show Bob Saget gushes over having a conversation with a frat brother who actually uses the word 'oligopolist' in a sentence.

Otherwise, I'm not the best contributor on this site to talk about the portrayal of Cornell's Greek system, but the brothers come across as earnest and genuine (even if some of them seemed like they had a makeover just for the show), the alma mater is used as background music on many occasion, and the sweeping vistas of the Cornell campus (con fences) are breathtaking, as always. Bob Saget even sheds a tear or two when he's not making jokes about male genitalia and waxing false-poetic about the life of college students.

I'm certain more official arbiters of taste will beg to differ, but good job, Seal and Serpent. You made this decidedly non-Greek alumnus proud.

Matthew Nagowski | December 08, 2010 (#)

Africana Ruckus Distracts From Real Changes

MetaEzra has been too busy dreaming up the 161 things that every Cornell alumnus must do to weigh in the controversy over the Provost's announcement that Africana Studies will receive increased funding to launch a PhD program while having its oversight functions transferred from the Provost's office to the College of Arts and Sciences.

But, I couldn't help but to finally chime in:

Isn't it ironic that in a year of traumatizing budget cuts, including the dismantling of the Education, Swedish, and Dutch programs, along with the gutting of Mathematics and Theatre, Film, and Dance, that the announcement of a budget increase would yield the biggest protests?

Of course, the subtext behind the move and the resulting student protests is that the vocal faculty members are actually not so much concerned about the fate of Africana Studies at Cornell (which I suspect will prosper) but of the fate of their particular niche of research and expertise: the ideology of identity and protest as a means to overcome racial barriers in society. By coming under the purview of Arts and Sciences, Africana faculty will see more overlap with sociologists and economists who may have a different way of thinking about race in a globalized century.

The problem, of course, is that Fuchs's decision doesn't reflect a racial barrier, it reflects an administrative need. And so students are now being treated like pawns in a game of faculty politics, told by their professors to put up a fight over something that would undeniably help them: being exposed to different and opposing perspectives on their major. Isn't that what an education in the liberal arts should be all about?

Here's one anonymous black alum writing on the Daily Sun's website:

With that said, I, a black alumni from Cornell, fully support Africana being made a part of Arts and Sciences. That way, you can have classes cross listed between departments, and it would be easier to fund African languages.

I think what the faculty in Africana fear most is review from Arts and Sciences and they fear that new Professors who are actually experts in African languages, religions, and economics can be brought in. In other words, they are fearful for their jobs.

The New York Times actually hinted at this trend a couple months back when it reported that culture is now (again) an acceptable pursuit of study for questions of poverty:

But in the overwhelmingly liberal ranks of academic sociology and anthropology the word “culture” became a live grenade, and the idea that attitudes and behavior patterns kept people poor was shunned.

Now, after decades of silence, these scholars are speaking openly about you-know-what, conceding that culture and persistent poverty are enmeshed.

“We’ve finally reached the stage where people aren’t afraid of being politically incorrect,” said Douglas S. Massey, a sociologist at Princeton who has argued that Moynihan was unfairly maligned.

Perhaps it is time to re-assess the culture of protest on Cornell's campus, and where exactly it is getting the involved parties. It's obvious that those who consistently teach a culture of difference aren't getting anywhere.

One final thought: the ability to disagree encompasses more forms than just vocal protest; students might even be able to learn how to use the power of theatre and film to convey powerful messages were it not for the gutting of that department last year.

Matthew Nagowski | December 06, 2010 (#)

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