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January 2011

Should Intro-Level Courses Be Mandatory?

Although I majored in government, I didn't take a single introductory-level government course during my four years at Cornell. Was this a mistake?

Consider the following passage:

Ashburn hit a ground ball to Wirtz, the shortstop, who threw it to Dark, the second baseman. Dark stepped on the bag, forcing out Cremin, who was running from first, and threw it to Anderson, the first baseman. Ashburn failed to beat the throw.

If, like me, you're familiar with baseball, these sentences are easy to understand. It's a 6-4-3 double play. I can visualize this play in my head, since I've seen the same situation many times on television.

If, however, you don't know much about baseball, it might take you a few readings before you have a good handle on what you've read. You can still get to the point of understanding, but it was a lot more difficult for you.

As a history teacher in the inner city, I run into similar situations pretty often. Students have trouble using critical thinking skills to explore significant themes of history because they lack the necessary background knowledge. If my students don't know the two oceans that border the United States, or know that World War II took place in the twentieth century, can they really be expected to make higher-level conjectures about isolationism or naval strategy?

I know a lot more than my students do, but I faced similar issues in a couple of my 300- and 400-level courses at Cornell. By jumping directly into upper-level classes, I missed some of the foundational material that would have made those classes easier. (An example: I entered my 400-level seminar on Islamic politics without knowing the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims.) As a responsible student, I would do some searching on Google or Wikipedia to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. But it wouldn't have been such a bad thing if I had to repeat some of the intro-level material that I supposedly gained from my AP-level classes.

Undergraduates in the liberal arts at Cornell are often eager to jump into higher-level classes: these courses meet less often, have fewer students, and offer higher median grades. But as I find out more about how students learn, I become more convinced that departments should mandate that students take at least two intro-level classes. Or, at least demonstrate a high level of mastery on an entrance exam. Foreign language departments already do something similar.

Elie Bilmes | January 31, 2011 (#)

Clocktower Pumpkin and Other Highlights From The CALC

Well, I survived yet another exhausting weekend at the Cornell Alumni Leadership Conference, and can excitedly add another thing to put on the list of 161 Things That Every Alumnus/a Must Do: build a free-standing spaghetti tower with a marshmallow pumpkin on top!

Here's a picture of my team in action. I'll proudly boast that we didn't have one engineer or architect on the team, yet still made it stand tall at 36 inches... for a couple of seconds. That that MBA students!

Other highlights from the conference included Susan Murphy showing the new orientation video meant to help address student mental health issues, Trustee Andrew Tisch explaining his governance strategy as to not get involved with the management decisions of the senior administration, and an absolutely thrilling session by Risa Mish '85 detailing the challenges and opportunities of non-profit governance and volunteer motivation. Read her book on the topic if/when it comes out!

We also learned, as the Sun reported today that applications reached an all-time high again this year, if barely. And that the Washington circulator bus to Columbia Heights doesn't circulate all that frequently at night.

The one major change between this year and last was that President Skorton spoke in lieu of Dean Fuchs. Skorton hit all the right notes that was certain to please alumni, but I can't help but be partial to the inside baseball approach that Fuchs took last year detailing the specifics of the new financial aid policy and the budget model.

Finally, although it was the worst kept secret over the last decade, Cornell Outdoor Education spilled the beans and laid claim to the pumpkin prank back in 1996.

Oh, that and Corey Ryan Earle '07 has an amazing beard.

Matthew Nagowski | January 31, 2011 (#)

CALCing It Up

I typically keep my life as a Cornell alumni blogger separate from my life life as a Cornell alumni volunteer leader, but this weekend I'm attending the Cornell Alumni Leadership Conference in Washington D.C., hobnobbing with a bunch of other class presidents, regional club board members, trustees, and so on. It's a delicate tightrope to walk, as I'm now referred to as 'Mr. MetaEzra' by many staff (despite my insistence that this is a group blog!) and I as a rule refrain from commenting on this blog on any of the dirty incredibly clean laundry I come across in working with the Alumni Office, etc. But I figure the open sessions at CALC are ripe for reporting on, just as I did last year.

I'm planning on live-blogging a couple of the speeches that are being made tomorrow, including the ones by Susan Murphy and David Skorton, so the Twitter bar to your right has been extended. Enjoy.

Matthew Nagowski | January 28, 2011 (#)

Are Faculty Children Scholarships Really Worth It?

In my last post I asked why Cornell tuition dollars are going to pay Harvard tuition via the Cornell child student tuition scholarship program. Longtime MetaEzra fan SJ wrote in suggesting that the reasons were purely to retain faculty among stiff competition:

The thinking behind the benefit from its origins has been this: Talented faculty, while well paid, earn much less than those with comparable educations who go into business, law, medicine, etc. Faculty need to make their peace with the idea that the life of the mind means you don't have the cars and trips and wardrobe of your lawyer and executive and banker friends. But the area where faculty have traditionally wanted absolute top dollar is kids' tuition. So this was seen as way to do that.

He also pointed us to a recent article by the Daily Pennsylvanian on similar benefits across top schools. But it doesn't appear as Harvard reciprocates...

Another peer institution, Vanderbilt University, was the first college to be recognized last year by CNN Money’s list of “100 Best Companies to Work For” primarily because of its tuition program. Children of Vanderbilt employees get a 70-percent tuition subsidy at any college in the country.

“It’s something that keeps me there,” said Vanderbilt lecturer Rachel Chiguluri, a mother of two children under 10 years old.

So Cornell actually seems to be quite the penny pincher relative to schools like Vanderbilt.

But the bigger question is whether or not top university, like Cornell, and others, should really be in the business of subsidizing their employee's children's higher education. SJ suggested it was a nice gesture to keep professors from being jealous of the doctor, lawyer, and banker friends, but those professions don't get summers off, tenure, and paid sabbaticals. Additionally, many professors no doubt have friends in many underpaid jobs, like the foreign service, the federal judiciary, teaching, journalism, or non-profit work. Not to mention their part-time adjunct friends who get absolutely no benefits.

You also have to ask how big the impact of this program really might be. Research that I did as an undergraduate shows that increasing a professor's salary by $10,000 a year might lower their probability of leaving by 0.7 percent in any given year. And the imputed value of the scholarship programs might be equal to $4,000 a year, lowering the probability by 0.3 percent.

What does that mean at Cornell with a campus of 1600 faculty? That the program might keep an additional 5 faculty in Ithaca every year.

It might be cheaper and more effective to just give those faculty raises if they get a better offer somewhere else. And then Cornell wouldn't have to face the prospect of giving a dollar to the folks in Harvard Square.

Matthew Nagowski | January 26, 2011 (#)

Why Is Cornell Paying Harvard Tuition?

One of the things I was most surprised at by Cornell's response to its yawning deficit situation was that employee benefits were held relatively intact. Sure, there was a pay freeze, hiring pause, and mass layoffs, but Cornell didn't have to resort to some of the things that corporate America did over the last couple of years, like cut back on retirement contributions or across the board pay cuts, etc.

It's even more surprising given just how generous some of Cornell's benefits are, especially when it comes to tuition assistance for the children of Cornell employees. Most everybody knows (one) of the benefits of being progeny of faculty: full or half price tuition, depending on their parents hiring date. You might think of that as 'free' for the University to provide, but it actually represents forgone tuition dollars. Think about it: it's not as if Cornell doesn't have 30,000 other students they could admit with equally high SAT scores.

But did you know that children of employees who go to schools other than Cornell... say Harvard or Princeton or Williams, also get a full 30 percent of their tuition paid for by Uncle Ezra. It's right here in the description of the Cornell Child Tuition Scholarship (CCTS) program:

CCTS pays 30% of the outside school’s tuition and fees. The minimum benefit amount is full tuition or $1,000 per academic year, whichever is less.

If the outside school’s tuition is greater than Cornell’s endowed tuition and fees, CCTS will pay 30% of Cornell’s endowed tuition and administrative fees.

No benefits are paid for graduate study at other institutions.

It's possible that I'm missing something here, but some conversations I've had with Cornell employees suggest that this program is as good as it sounds: If your child gets into Harvard (or Princeton), Cornell will pay up to ~ $15k a year to help educate her. That's a $60k benefit to employees -- or more if you have multiple children.

What makes the policy seem particularly egregious is that it seems to benefit well-paid professors the most. Mid-level staff members at Cornell would certainly be in an income bracket to have their student qualify for a free ride at Harvard (or Duke). But a family with two full professors making a quarter million dollars a year would benefit richly. Which is exactly the opposite of what I suggested a couple of years back when I proposed that faculty had to help bear the pain of the Great Recession.

It would be interesting to find out how much Cornell pays for this benefit on an annual basis. Meanwhile, the Theatre department has been lobotomized and the Education department dismantled, whittling down the educational opportunities for Cornell students.

And, for those wondering, a cursory search of Harvard's benefits policies shows that the Cantabrigians are not reciprocal in their tuition support to Cornell.

Matthew Nagowski | January 24, 2011 (#)

Feeling Like a Refined Man

The dearth of posting in recent weeks may be directly attributable to 1) the fact that I'll be teaching a class as an adjunct at Buffalo State College this spring which requires a little bit more planning than previously anticipated, and 2) I've re-kindled my appetite for reading fiction over the last couple of months, and have been devouring books at a rather intense rate.

One book that I finished this weekend is Sam Lipsyte's The Ask, a darkly comedic romp that follows a college development officer's unraveling career, friendships, and marriage. Set against the backdrop of a bunch of hustlers fundraisers looking for the 'next big give', Lipsyte's biting plot skillfully explores the centripetal forces of old college friendships, re-definitions of marriage and fatherhood in the 21st century, and the utility of art.

And it's an altogether fun read for anybody who follows the politics and economics of higher education.

At any rate, I found the following passage, told by the main character's boss, to be quite amusing. You can just imagine it being told somewhere within the depths of Day Hall as the Theatre Department was being dismembered:

"This is larger than you. This whole game is poised for a gargantuan fall."

"What game?" I said.

"Higher education. Of the liberal arts variety. The fine arts in particular. Times get tough, people want practical. Even the rich start finding us superfluous. Well, they always think we're superfluous, but when you're feeling flush it doesn't matter. You pay a whore to make you feel like a man, you fund a philharmonic to make yourself feel like a refined man. Bit it's a pleasure many don't feel like splurging on these days. Worse is the pain of the tuition payers. They are just small-time enough to really resent the price we charge to fool their children into thinking they have a lucrative future in, say, kinetic sculpture. Fat times it was maybe okay to send your slightly slow middle son to an expensive film program. He'd learn to charge around in his baseball cap, write his violent, derivative screenplay in the coffee shop. Idiotic, right? But ultimately affordable...

It's not looking good. Donors are getting scarce. Everybody's worried. That's really my point. The whole deal's in danger. And maybe it should be."

Matthew Nagowski | January 23, 2011 (#)

Slicing Apart the Barriers Argument

A friend and alumnus from the Class of 2005, Dan Jost, has written an article in Landscape Architecture Magazine that is perhaps the most in-depth treatment of this past year's bridge barriers discussion. He begins his article chillingly enough:

I saw Karl for the last time on Sunday, April 6, 2003, at our weekly supervisor meeting. We had worked together at Cornell University’s North Star Dining Hall. On the job, Karl was relaxed and witty. When the managers came up with an annoying rule that the salt and pepper shakers had to face south, he joked that it was part of their sustainability strategy, to encourage solar gain. When a friend attended a Ben Folds concert, he asked how she could stand listening to his music: “Doesn’t it just make you want to kill yourself?” That comment would ring in my head for years afterward.

Karl had many friends at Cornell. In fact, my housemates were planning a party the following week, and he had said he would come. But he never made it. Four days after that work meeting, at about 5:15 on a Thursday evening, several drivers stuck in rush-hour traffic saw Karl climb onto the railing of the Stewart Avenue Bridge and jump into the Cascadilla Gorge.

For those who wish to read the rest of the article, they can gain access to the full text here. It's a pretty exhaustive piece that does a good job of pulling out some of the conflict that exists in Ithaca over the fences, particularly in terms of the built environment. (As a landscape architect, he skirts other measures to mitigate suicides, like mental health counseling and the like.) Dan's basic argument is two-fold: 1) you can't definitively prove the counter-factual that bridge barriers result in less total suicides, which 2) means it's not worth the cost of sacrificing the beauty of the surrounding scenery.

Readers know that I've disagreed with these arguments in the past, as there may be both ethical and legal justifications for the barriers. And the aesthetics of a covered bridge might not be all that bad.

But the issue sure does cultivate some tensions between Carl Becker's 'Freedom and Responsibility', doesn't it?

Matthew Nagowski | January 15, 2011 (#)

Why Making Less Won't Save You More on Financial Aid

Another one of my pet peeves is hearing somebody quip that their family actually could have saved more money by making less money to qualify for more institutional financial aid from a school like Cornell. There's usually a twinge of resentment and jealousy in their voice as they consider those lucky students who had to endure the hardships of a childhood in poverty before landing a full need-based scholarship for college.

Typically, the narrative comes from a parent who might say, "I only work part-time because the college will take away our daughter's scholarship, and we'll be poorer, if I worked full time". Or it might be from a disaffected student who says, "My father makes $300,000 a year but if he took a lower paying job we'd actually have more money from all the financial aid I'd get."

I'm sorry to say, folks, but it's just not true. When it comes to need-based financial aid, the more money your family makes, the more income you'll have at the end of the day, even after accounting for the higher tuition bill. In nearly all scenarios, there's no point at which you would be richer were you making less money.

Consider this table I put together based on the chart that the Provost published last year showing the estimated cost of Cornell by income bracket. I estimate each family's tax incidence (assuming no deductions) using this handy calculator and the 8% payroll tax, and net out the remaining cost of Cornell from the post-tax income:

Yep, your family would really be better-off financially if you father decided to quit his corporate law job to start a new career teaching in public schools. Or not.

Matthew Nagowski | January 14, 2011 (#)

Did Hansen Clarke Develop His Sleeping Habits At Cornell?

While the country prays for the prompt and full recovery of Congresswoman (and Cornellian) Gabrielle Giffords, the Times recently ran a lighter story on newly minted Congressman (and Cornellian) Hansen Clarke '81:

Hansen Clarke, a newly elected Democrat from Michigan, is coming to Washington with a “warrior’s mentality” to help stave off unemployment and foreclosures in metro Detroit. He plans to hole up in his “bunker” — his Longworth House office, where he will work (“practically around the clock”), eat (“healthy options” like microwaved sweet potatoes) and sleep (most likely on a mattress and sleeping bag combination).

“Washington is not going to be a home for me — I’m only there to work,” Mr. Clarke said. “I need to be able to work up to 20 hours a day and still get some decent sleep, and if I sleep in my office I’ll be able to do that.”

Mr. Clarke is one of as many as a dozen freshman House members who plan to bunk in their offices when Congress is in session. Though no one has hard numbers, anecdotal evidence suggests that at least 40 to 50 House members, both new and old, will be sleeping at work.

Elie previously wrote about Clarke in August.

One can't help if Clarke developed his sleeping habits in Uris Library... but unfortunately for him, he didn't have the comforts of the Cocktail Lounge to enjoy: the library's Daily Sun archives indicate that the ground wasn't broken for the Uris addition until a month before Clarke graduated.

Matthew Nagowski | January 09, 2011 (#)

The Social Networks of Silicon Valley

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.

The Cornell network has served me well out here in Silicon Valley. I had lunch with my sophomore-year roommate Jae two weeks ago and he's on his grind in the startup world. After college, he went to work at Alexa and then Yelp where he saved up enough dough to try his own thing for a year or two. He's building Startedby, and it turns out his co-founder is another Cornell CS guy. They didn't know each other back in Ithaca, but I think they met through ideakick, which this guy, Trevor Gross started. Jae and I had a falling out after our disastrous sophomore year living situation and we hadn't talked much in 4 years. But he's one of the brightest and strangest people I've ever met so it was a pleasure to kick ideas around with him and give each other a bit of encouragement.

Walter Chen | January 05, 2011 (#)

Rita Doyle Pederson '98 Wins MetaEzra Holiday Contest

As if the holidays weren't stressful enough, MetaEzra ran a contest in November and December asking Cornell alumni to brainstorm a bucket list suitable for any alumna or alumni: The 161 Things That Every Cornell Alumnus/a Must Do. Alumni across the globe racked their brain for weeks trying to come up with the five most intriguing, compelling, humorous, or tear-jerking activities that every proud Cornellian must do after they proudly march across Schoellkopf Field.

We asked for each submitter to provide us with a list of five things to do, and in total we received over 75 entries for the contest. I then collected a rag tag enthusiastic panel of judges to blindly review the submissions -- while I abstained due to my knowledge of who submitted which entries -- so special thanks to Elie, Julia, Shane, and Munier for their awesome rating skills!

Each judge was then asked to rate each submission on their own independent scale from 1 to 10. Results were then normalized to each judge and averaged across the judge's scores; the alumna with the highest aggregate score for all of her entries would win.

And that alumna is Rita Doyle Pederson '98, a consummate Cornellian, who also happens to be the President of her class. Among Rita's entries were these two favorites of mine:

Tell your five year old it's ok to use a swear word as long as it's part of a hockey cheer and being used toward Harvard.

Come back to campus as a recruiter for your company. Stay at the Statler. Interview the current students and marvel at how bright they are

Rita is the proud winner of a hard cover copy of Carl Becker's The Founders and the Founding. Congratulations, Rita!

Elsewhere, Alan Flaherty '62 and Scott Pesner '87 each submitted well over the 5 required entries. So they each deserve an honorable mention for gumption.

But what about the least highly rated submission? With just 26 percent of the score of the highest rated entry, it was actually my favorite for humor and distinct ties to Cornell:

With the new-found culinary skills of post-college life, try to recreate a sui at home.

Because who doesn't dream of a WGC or a PMP a on those cold winter nights?

We'll be busy finalizing our full list in the coming weeks (and late entries are always encouraged, just email editor@metaezra.com). Enjoy the full results of the contest below!

Matthew Nagowski | January 04, 2011 (#)

A MetaEzra Retrospective

Not to toot this website's own horn, but we've had a pretty banner year. And as MetaEzra celebrates its five year anniversary this month (my first post? It was on scarves.) it makes sense to reflect on all of our accomplishments and ponder what the future has in store:

We continued to build our readership base among alumni, students, and staff while incorporating four new alumni editors into our fold, with Elie Bilmes '10, Munier Salem '10, Makafui Fiavi '10, and Walter Chen '04 MS '05. And the website received its largest single-day traffic count back in March when we suggested that Andy Bernard does not a good Law School advertising campaign make.

Otherwise, we live-twittered throughout Reunions (despite the fact that Andy was unable (or unwilling?) to make to the trip to Ithaca) and reported from the first-ever Cornell Alumni Leadership Conference. There was also a retrospective on a Mark Zuckerberg interview I conducted in 2004 and covered Cornell's own unique Love Story traditions.

Finally, there was our successful holiday contest, in which we crowd-sourced a new list of 161 that every Cornell alum must do, while we continually reminded everybody how much the Sun's list has deteriorated relative to the original list published by CAM. Results will be posted shortly!

Looking forward, the Cornell blogosphere remains strong. The folks over at Cornell Insider have been blogging up a storm, despite their somewhat suspect political views, and we've had some students transition into productive alumni bloggers, like Brian at Ithacating in Cornell Heights and some of the folks who have joined the team here at MetaEzra.

It's hard to believe that I've been blogging about Cornell as an alum for longer than my time in Ithaca as a student. But hopefully the coming years will be just as rewarding -- and fun -- as my first decade associated with Ezra's University.

Matthew Nagowski | January 03, 2011 (#)

Other Recent Posts

-- WSJ: Cornell Wins NYC Tech Campus Bid (EBilmes)

-- Barrier Update: City Approves Nets (DJost)

-- Big Red Cymbal Guy (Nagowski)

-- New York Times Survey on Campus Recruiting is Flawed (KScott)

-- Barrier Update: Legal precedent suggests City of Ithaca will not be held liable for gorge suicide (DJost)

-- Despite MSG Loss, Big Potential for Big Red Hockey (EBilmes)

-- City Council Will Vote on Suicide Nets (DJost)

-- An Encounter on the Upper East Side (Nagowski)

-- Showing Off Your School Spirit (Nagowski)

-- Chipotle Ithaca? (KScott)

-- Cornell at the ING NYC Marathon (KScott)

-- Crossing Over a Fine Line: Commercial Activity on Campus (KScott)

-- Milstein's Downfall (Nagowski)

-- Can any Cornell-associated organization really be independent of the University? (Nagowski)

-- Slope Media Revisited (EBilmes)

-- Slope Media Group Approved for Byline Funding (KScott)

-- Occupy AEM? (KScott)

-- New campus pub to be good for both Greeks and non-Greeks (Nagowski)

-- Gagging the Election (Nagowski)

-- The Changing Structure of Rush Week (Nagowski)

-- Ivy League Humility in the Midwest (EBilmes)

-- Of Median Grades and Economics Minors (Nagowski)

-- Homecoming Recap (Nagowski)

-- My Cornell Bookshelf (Nagowski)

-- The Sun's Opinion Section Has Suddenly Gotten Good (Nagowski)

-- Remembering the 11th (Nagowski)

-- Cornellian Tapped as Top Economic Advisor (Nagowski)

-- Cutting Pledging, and the Good Which Comes With It (EBilmes)

-- Why Cornell Should Not Close Fall Creek Gorge (Nagowski)

-- Welcome to the Class of 2015 (Nagowski)