etc.

The New York Times“Economic View” section is “a column that explores life through an economic lens with leading economists and writers.” The March 17, 2017 entry has an interesting twist, as it asks, “What if Sociologists Had as Much Influence as Economists?” Author Neil Erwin notes:

[A]s much as we love economics here — this column is named Economic View, after all — there just may be a downside to this one academic discipline having such primacy in shaping public policy.

They say when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And the risk is that when every policy adviser is an economist, every problem looks like inadequate per-capita gross domestic product.

Another academic discipline may not have the ear of presidents but may actually do a better job of explaining what has gone wrong in large swaths of the United States and other advanced nations in recent years.

Sociologists spend their careers trying to understand how societies work. And some of the most pressing problems in big chunks of the United States may show up in economic data as low employment levels and stagnant wages but are also evident in elevated rates of depression, drug addiction and premature death. In other words, economics is only a piece of a broader, societal problem. So maybe the people who study just that could be worth listening to.

Erwin discusses a 1967 proposal by then Senator Walter Mondale to create a White House Council of Social Advisers to compliment the Council of Economic Advisers. As a sociologist I’d be happy to see my disciplinary colleagues on the new council. As a social sciences dean I should state that other disciplines should also be represented! Regardless of membership, it is doubtful that the Trump White House would entertain the possibility of a White House Council of Social Advisers [or Advisors; I prefer the -or vs. -er spelling]. Perhaps this idea can be revived when the 46th president takes office….

Democracy in the United States is currently in rough shape, as declining trust and increasing inequality make it harder for citizens to find common ground. Michael Neblo is an Ohio State University political scientist who argues that bringing more individuals into the political discussion could reverse the process, and this increased discussion could be facilitated by the Internet. The Pacific Standard magazine recently conducted an interview with Professor Neblo. The interview concludes with, “I think there is room for angry protest in a democracy. If you think the Affordable Care Act is crucial legislation, by all means get out there and show them how angry you are at the prospect of it being dismantled. But there should also be room for civil, substantive discussion.” Indeed!

My wife’s mother is a retired elementary school science teacher, and her sister in law is currently an elementary/middle school teacher and assistant principal. One of the sister in law’s students is applying for a spot in a summer camp for middle school kids interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers; I was sent a draft of the application essay for comments. The prompt is “how would you use math and science to change the world?” I decided to write a sample essay that, perhaps, the seventh-grade student could use as a model for how to more tightly focus her essay, which was very broad and general. In twenty minutes I whipped up 500 words, and showed the sample essay to my mother in law, who said that the language was at an impossibly high level for the student to engage! Also, of course, I veered off too much into social science territory instead of sticking to the STEM weeds. We were able to come up with an outline of how the student might restructure her essay, but will not send my sample essay. I thought that it would be fun to post it here on “Dispatches From a Dean,” however!


The TV show Humans is about a world where most families have a synthetic human companion – a “synth” – who cooks, cleans, and cares for them. This is a very interesting premise, but doesn’t totally reflect the world I see in 100 years. For one thing, the main family in the TV show is a traditional TV nuclear family: a married mom and dad who both work outside the home, and two teenage kids at home. But what about a multi-generational home with grandma living at home to help care for grandkids who are homeschooled? What if one parent works from home all day, and one of the kids has special needs? I would use science, math, and technology to design a home and synthetic companions that better reflect this more probable world.

For example, zoning laws in Northern California are changing to allow denser living. In Oakland we can now build “Accessory Dwelling Units” (ADUs) in the back yard where grandma can live, and have easy access to the grandkids. ADUs are not huge, though, so we have to make careful use of space and the items within. We can use new advanced technology to make appliances smaller, quieter, and less energy-intensive. We would of course use recycled materials, and make sure that we have bins for recycling and composting. We’d also look at alternative fuels for heating and cooling. Maybe hydrogen cells that run on salt water? We have plenty of that in the Pacific Ocean! Perhaps the family synth would be hydrogen-powered.

I’ve never seen a bus in Humans, but in my world we’d definitely have mass transit options. Grandma might not be able to drive, you know! The buses wouldn’t be the slow and stinky diesel gas-powered beasts of today. They’d run on alternative fuels (maybe hydrogen cells here too!), and would be controlled via advanced Global Positioning Systems (GPS). Perhaps a fleet of synth-driven cars would circulate to ferry humans from the buses and light rail trains on major streets to their houses and ADUs. Maybe synths would not be needed, as self-driving cars would do the job.

I think that many folks would also live in densely packed high-rise units. So for these we’d need to come up with better green space ideas, since folks can’t be cooped up inside all day. Perhaps each high rise would have a rooftop garden with trees for shade and sunny patches for vegetable gardens. Gardens could also be built on each floor, and hydroponic systems can be used in places where soil wouldn’t work. Light, water, and temperature levels would be computer controlled, and also adapt to the presence of humans, pets, and synths.

In sum, my world would have many advanced and interconnected systems. I would need a strong knowledge of science and math to not only understand each individual element, but it is also essential to get the components to work together. I look forward to the challenge!

The Posse Foundation recruits high school students with high academic and leadership potential to attend higher education institutions in groups as a strategy for decreasing isolation and improving student success. An alumna from the very first cohort in 1989 will soon become the first Posse member to become a college president. Awesome!

I am on the board of directors of the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences (CCAS), a professional organization for deans of colleges of liberal arts and sciences. Fellow board member Kate Conley has published a very timely op-ed about the value of liberal arts eduction in 2017…and beyond. Please check it out!

 

Citylab has posted a story about the status of various high-speed railroad projects in the United States. As daily commuter on Amtrak between Oakland and San José, CA I would love for a high speed line to be built along the Capitol Corridor. Alas, nothing appears to be currently on the drawing board, but one can hope!

On July 1, 2013 I became a dean for the first time, and I used this blog to chronicle my experiences as a newbie to full-time administration. I stopped posting entries at the end of my first year, but then started posting again at the end of the first week of my second dean appointment. Now the second year of the second dean appointment is underway, and it’s the start of my fourth year overall as a dean. I want to continue posting brief notes about experiences and observations as a social scientist who’s also a college administrator, so it’s time for a blog name change! “Dispatches From a New Dean” is now “Dispatches From a Dean.” Thanks to the folks at The Society Pages for keeping me on board!

Recently a friend and I had a conversation on the messaging service WhatsApp about mobile phone charging cables:

SS

I’ll have to visit There’s Research on That! to see if my hunch is correct about mobile phone charging cables causing problems in folks’ ability to fully use their phones and stay connected with friends and family…

Facebook has recently been accused of censoring conservative political commentary in users’ newsfeeds. The Wall Street Journal has an interesting graphic that addresses a corollary issue: the newsfeeds of liberal and conservative usesrs are very different. Wow!

A few days ago I had a conversation with a friend about why African Americans usually vote for Democratic candidates given that they initially heavily favored Republicans after gaining the right to vote. “The Al Smith Shift” popped into my mind. I remembered this from a freshman year lecture in one of my political sciences classes at Georgia Tech. That was in 1986-1987…almost 30 years ago (!). Anyway, the professor noted that Alfred Smith was the 1928 Democratic nominee for U.S. President. He lost the election, but some of his ideas were attractive to African American voters, so they cast a large number of votes for him. His policy proposals were later adopted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the New Deal, so African Americans continued to vote for Democrats. Well, at least I think that this is what the professor said. A Google search for “Al Smith Shift” or “Alfred Smith Shift” does not turn up any direct evidence to support my memory. The book Blacks in the New Deal: The Shift from an Electoral Tradition and Its Legacy appears in the list of general results, however, so I’ll have to check that out. If anyone has any information that can help me determine the veracity of my memory please share it!

UPDATE: Professor Garrick Percival writes, “Check out this link which offers some good insights: http://www.blacksandpresidency.com/herberthoover.php. Assuming this is accurate, it seems like Smith’s record on racial issues was something of mixed bag. He made overtures toward black voters and spoke to issues of importance, but he was also really concerned about alienating the white Democratic vote in the south. It looks like he garnered some fairly impressive vote totals in southern majority-black counties but I suspect this doesn’t say a whole lot given the high levels of black disenfranchisement at the time. It doesn’t look like he did all that well among black voters in the northern urban cities.” Thank you, Dr. Percival!