Monday, July 21, 2014

Policy-Induced Death Spirals - The PASSHE Story - Part 2

Last week’s blog post contained this assertion: “The financial death spirals that have already claimed six¹ PASSHE universities, and will eventually claim all² fourteen, is caused by a defective business model that, in turn, is caused by years of well-meaning but destructive policy decisions at the System level that drive PASSHE’s flawed business model.”  This week’s blog post will address two key elements in this assertion.

A Defective Business Model

Neither a university nor a system of fourteen universities is a “business” but, like all educational institutions, they must pay their bills and otherwise conform to the laws of economics to achieve the purpose for which they were created.  The Middle States’ Association which accredits the PASSHE Universities affirms this inescapable reality³ in Standard 3: Institutional Resources:

“The human, financial, technical, facilities and other resources necessary to achieve an institution’s mission and goals are available and accessible.”
 
To gain and retain accreditation, Middle States requires the availability of financial and other resources, not because the colleges and universities it accredits are businesses, but rather because institutional purpose, mission and goals in higher education cannot be achieved without the requisite resources.
 
More specifically, Characteristics of Excellence, a key Middle States guiding document, states³ that to gain and hold accreditation, an institution must meet important criteria, including the following:
1)      that it has established conditions and procedures under which its mission and goals can be realized;
2)      that it is accomplishing its mission and goals substantially;
3)      that it is organized, staffed, and supported so that it can be expected to continue to accomplish its mission and goals.
 
According to Act 188, the enabling legislation that created the PASSHE system of 14 universities, “Its purpose shall be to provide high quality education at the lowest possible cost to the students.” From the Merriam-Webster dictionary, when used in law the word ‘shall’ expresses what is mandatory.
 
As many previous blog posts have shown, compelling evidence exists which documents the fact that the Act 188 statutory purpose of the PASSHE Universities: “High quality education at the lowest possible cost to the students” hasn’t been delivered by the PASSHE Board of Governors to the PASSHE students since 2002.  This means that PASSHE has failed to meet the first two Middle States’ criteria above.
 
The fact that PASSHE’s January 2014 strategic⁵ plan, its first strategic plan in five years, never explicitly mentions its Act 188 statutory purpose: “High quality education at the lowest possible cost to the students,” suggests that PASSHE is not committed to meeting the third Middle States’ criterion either.
 
The Bottom Line

1) PASSHE has not established conditions and procedures under which its mandated statutory purpose can be realized; 2) PASSHE has not been accomplishing its Act 188 statutory purpose since 2002; and 3) by failing via its new Strategic Plan to commit publicly to its statutory purpose, PASSHE is clearly not committed to achieving its statutory purpose anytime soon.

Years of Well-Meaning but Destructive Policy Decisions

College students and parents shopping for the best higher education bargain quickly learn that there is a big difference between tuition, i.e., “sticker price,” and “bottom line,” i.e., the actual cost of attendance to a particular student.  What they may not realize is that the difference between those two figures is actually made up by a combination of “scholarships” and/or “tuition discounts.”
 
True scholarships are funded by private donors, while tuition discounts are facilitated by the institutions themselves by means of a “High Tuition/High Aid” financial aid policy.  
 
Under such policies, the sticker price is set higher than the cost of educating one student.  In this way, families of students who can afford to pay the full sticker price do so, while families of good students who can’t afford to pay it are offered “institutional scholarships,” which are really tuition discounts—awarded to provide educational opportunity to students from families of lesser financial means.
 
“Institutional scholarships” are usually funded by a combination of endowments and tuition discounting.  
 
Endowments are typically pools of private donations that, properly invested, spin off scholarships each year in perpetuity.  Harvard University’s Endowment, which was $30 billion in 2012, is America’s  largest and, with a typical 4% spending rule, spins off $120 million in scholarships each and every year.   
 
For universities without endowments, however, the only other sources of funding for financially needy students would either be: 1) true scholarships, funded by private donors or; 2) tuition discounts, funded by the difference between sticker price and the average cost to educate one student, paid by families whose cost of attendance falls somewhere between the actual cost of attendance and full sticker price.
 
Act 188 Mandates the Lowest Possible Cost to PASSHE Students—Not the Lowest Tuition

The two ends of PASSHE’s statutory purpose, “high quality education,” and the “lowest possible cost to the students” constitute a significant promise that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania made to PASSHE students when Act 188 became law.  The language in that law could easily have stated “at the lowest possible tuition” had that been the intent of the two houses of the PA Legislature when drafted, or of Governor Thornburgh when he signed the bill.  The plain language of the law makes it clear the intent of the law from the beginning was to provide high quality education at the lowest possible cost to the students, i.e., at the lowest possible “bottom line,” not at the lowest possible tuition, or “sticker price.”
 
The most destructive policy decision by the PASSHE Board of Governors has been its insistence since 2002 on maintaining the lowest tuition, i.e., sticker price, rather than the lowest possible “bottom line.” This perverse decision is contrary to law and, together with the rapid defunding of PASSHE universities by the State, has created the death spirals for six PASSHE universities, with eight more soon to follow. That same decision singlehandedly and simultaneously defeats both ends of Act 188’s promise, by denying funds needed for both “high quality education” and “the lowest possible cost to the students.”    
 
¹ Between August of 2013 and July of 2014, the six PASSHE universities that have publicly declared financial distress include: Clarion, Edinboro, Mansfield, East Stroudsburg, Slippery Rock and Cheyney.
² The remaining eight of the 14 PASSHE universities that have not yet declared financial distress include Bloomsburg, California, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven,  Millersville, Shippensburg, and West Chester.
³
http://www.msche.org/publications/CHX06_Aug08REVMarch09.pdf.
http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=angelo%20armenti.
http://www.passhe.edu/inside/bog/Documents/Strategic%20Plan%202020%20Rising%20to%20the%20Challenge_dh.pdf.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Policy-Induced Death Spirals - The PASSHE Story

A Matter of Definition
 
The term “death spiral” is used in many different contexts including finance, accounting and aviation, to name a few. In this blog post, we will use that term to describe what can happen—and in fact what has been happening—to six universities so far that are part of a system of 14 “public” universities known as the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).
 
The PASSHE universities include Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester.

In finance, the term “death spiral” is used to describe a situation in which certain provisions in the debt financing agreement can cause a company’s stock price to fall dramatically, often leading to bankruptcy.
 
In accounting, the term “death spiral” describes a situation in which a company eliminates some of its product line to “save money” but creates excess capacity in the process.  Unless the company also reduces its fixed overhead, additional product cuts become necessary, and the death spiral continues.
 
In aviation the term “death spiral” describes a situation in which a pilot, deprived of visual clues as to the actual location of the horizon, becomes deceived by his vestibular (inner ear) system into thinking the plane is still flying level when, in fact, its wings are becoming increasingly vertical as it spirals rapidly downward, in tighter and tighter horizontal circles, much like water spinning down a drain.
 
For universities the term “death spiral” refers to situations in which those institutions perform ever more negatively in response to policy decisions that are mistakenly believed to improve a problematic situation when, in fact, those policy decisions actually make the situation in those universities worse!
 
The Aviation Death Spiral

Additional insights into university death spirals may be found in the long-studied and well-understood causes of the aviation death spiral.  In that case a pilot who for whatever reason, can’t see the horizon notices that his altitude is falling and, mistakenly believing that the airplane’s wings are level, does what would normally increase the plane’s altitude—if it is flying level—just pull back on the stick!
 
But whenever a plane’s wings are not level, the flight path is not straight but follows a turning motion, or circling, which is also accompanied by a loss of altitude whose rate of descent increases with wing tilt. So if the pilot mistakenly pulls back on the stick in such a situation, rather than making the plane climb, that action steers the plane into an aviation death spiral in which the radius of the turning motion gets smaller and smaller, the tilt of the wings gets steeper and steeper, and the rate of descent gets faster and faster.  Unless the plane returns to level flight before pulling back on the stick, calamity ensues.  
 
That reportedly is what caused the crash that killed John F. Kennedy, Jr., his wife and sister-in law in July of 1999.  Kennedy was qualified for Visual Flight Rules (VFR), but was not qualified for Instrument Flight Rules (IFR).  So in a flight scheduled for a sunny afternoon, various delays caused takeoff to be delayed until after sunset, in what then turned out to be a night flight over water, with reported conditions of haze and poor visibility, which obscured the horizon and likely overwhelmed an inexperienced pilot.
 
The PASSHE University Death Spirals

In the four month period between August and December of 2013, five of 14 PASSHE universities— Clarion,¹ Edinboro,² Mansfield,³ East Stroudsburg and Slippery Rock—publicly declared financial distress, ballooning deficits and layoffs of tenured faculty.  On July 4, 2014, Cheyney University announced the abrupt retirement of its president, with news reports quoting official sources stating that Cheyney’s deficit had more than doubled to $14 million in the last seven years.

A similarity in media accounts of these six PASSHE universities—and especially a similarity with regard to their ballooning debt—suggest a similarity in the root causes of their financial distress.
 
An analysis of the fundamental expense patterns of the 14 PASSHE universities over the fiscal years 2004 to 2010 showed that PASSHE’s financial business model was unsustainable in the following sense: 1) If all 14 PASSHE universities maintained constant enrollments, all fourteen would encounter unavoidable mission failure and financial bankruptcy in the near term! And,

2) One or more of the 14 PASSHE universities could avoid near-term mission failure and financial bankruptcy, but only by growing their enrollments year after year.  Only in that case could one or more universities temporarily forestall their own bankruptcy, while impoverishing sibling institutions laboring under fixed or declining enrollments, while thereby hastening their financial bankruptcy.
 
The financial death spirals that have already claimed six PASSHE universities, and will eventually claim all fourteen, is caused by a defective business model that, in turn, is caused by years of well-meaning but destructive policy decisions at the System level that drive PASSHE’s flawed business model.
 
Like the pilot who can’t see the horizon, the authors of those damaging System-level policies who think what they are doing will make the situation better when in fact they are making it worse, are exhibiting a different kind of “horizon blindness,” not a physical blindness based on faulty signals from an inner ear, but on “political blindness,” the willful disregard of fiduciary duties and the realities of demographic and economic forces, for the sake of currying favor with the elected officials who appoint and reappoint them to their positions of power.          
 
¹ http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2013/08/clarion_university_restructuri.html.  Penn Live, August 16, 2013.
²
http://www.post-gazette.com/education/2013/09/11/Edinboro-University-plans-faculty-program-cuts/stories/201309110152. post-gazette.com, September 11, 2013.
³
http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2013/09/mansfield_university_becomes_t.html. Penn Live, September 26, 2013.
http://www.post-gazette.com/news/education/2013/10/30/East-Stroudsburg-is-fourth-state-owned-Pennsylvania-university-to-announce-cuts/stories/201310300139. post-gazette.com, October 30, 2013.
https://www.keepandshare.com/doc/6756902/tribune-review-december-24-2013-slippery-rock-university-facing-10-million-deficit-possible-l. Tribune-Review, December 24, 2013.
http://www.philly.com/philly/hp/news_update/265762741.html.
http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=angelo%20armenti.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Design-Induced Pilot Error - The Cheyney Story

Design-Induced Pilot Error

Airplanes get designed by groups of people who know about flying, as well as mechanical, electrical, manufacturing and aeronautical engineering.  In the course of designing even a small personal aircraft—which is still a complicated system of technologies that must be integrated not only to work, but to fit into limited spaces involving as little excess weight as possible—certain imperatives related to the integration of the various technologies must be honored.  At some point, in order to take off, fly and land the plane safely, while simultaneously managing the separate demands of the various technologies, the pilot is required to perform a certain series of tasks in a certain window of time. And if the required number of tasks is sufficiently large, and/or the window of time sufficiently small, the plane may crash, and the cause¹ is likely to be attributed to “pilot error.”

The Cheyney Story

On July 4, 2014 the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story² with the following headline: “Cheyney president out, acting president to step in Monday.”  The first sentence reads: “Cheyney University abruptly announced on Thursday [July 3, 2014] the retirement of its president, Michelle R. Howard-Vital, and said her successor would take over Monday [July 7, 2014].”  With just one work day between Thursday and Monday, and Friday being July 4th,  leadership transitions can’t get much more “abrupt” than that.
 
Even when such announcements provide no details regarding the reasons for the sudden transition, abrupt “retirements,” by their very nature, unconsciously suggest to the objective reader the almost certain existence of serious if unspoken misdeeds on the part of the retiring president.    
 
But this July 4th article gives details that go beyond a suggestion of presidential transgressions and gets close to the edge of a public accusation by Robert Bogle, Chair of the Council of Trustees at Cheyney University, who is quoted in the article as follows:
 
“Bogle, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Tribune, said Vital chose to retire after discussions with Frank T. Brogan, chancellor of the 14-university Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.”

“Cheyney has struggled with low enrollment and deficits for years, as have many historically black universities.  When Vital began at Cheyney in 2007, the deficit was between $4 million and $6 million, Bogle said.  By last September, it had risen to $14 million.  Bogle was unsure of the latest figure.”  
 
The take-away from these two quotes would seem to be that President Howard-Vital retired abruptly because Cheyney’s deficit more than doubled during her 7-year tenure as Cheyney president.  Even the following “supportive” quote from Mr. Bogle implied at least a partial criticism of the president:
 
“I think that Dr. Vital was absolutely an academician who did a lot of good things at Cheyney,” said Robert Bogle, chair of Cheyney’s board of trustees.  “Some of the things this university does face, has faced, will face, she certainly could not control.  She tried to grapple with and overcome these issues.  Some she could, some she couldn’t.”  (Emphasis added.)
 
The “University as Airplane” Metaphor
 
Imagine flying a plane in which the pilot can’t control some things the plane faces, such as the need to turn the plane on command to avoid mountains, or the need to descend when approaching airports!
 
And while that metaphor may seem to be too far-fetched to be a fair comparison to the underlying situation that led to the Cheyney article, let’s consider a fairer comparison: “Does the Cheyney president—the metaphorical pilot—have control over the Cheyney University “deficit?”
 
The answer to that question is “Not really!”  While surprising to many, including new presidents who join PASSHE Universities initially believing otherwise, that answer is absolutely no surprise to PASSHE presidents who have been in the job for at least a year or two.  The best evidence for that assertion is seen in the news reports of the five PASSHE universities—Clarion³, Edinboro⁴, Mansfield⁵, East Stroudsburg⁶ and Slippery Rock⁷—that have already announced financial distress, ballooning deficits and layoffs of tenured faculty, in the year before the Inquirer article revealed Cheyney’s financial distress.
 
The policy-driven financial situation facing all 14 PASSHE universities has in recent years become so dire that my March 24, 2014 blog post⁸ described it with this headline: “PASCU President Says PASSHE Universities are Trapped in a ‘Death Spiral’ Not of Their Own Making.” That blog post cited news reports of the then five, now six, PASSHE Universities that have publicly proclaimed serious financial distress.
 
That same dire financial situation was described in Privatization Without a Plan⁹ in September of 2013.  In turn, that book grew out of an invited keynote presentation that I gave before members of the PASSHE Councils of Trustees, the Board of Governors, and the PASSHE Presidents in October of 2010—predicting both mission failure and imminent bankruptcy for the 14 PASSHE Universities—if certain PASSHE policies were not changed.  Despite ample evidence of growing financial distress among a growing number of PASSHE Universities, those problematic policies unfortunately still remain in effect, suggesting more financial distress for more PASSHE universities in the future.      
 
¹ https://www.keepandshare.com/doc/7098337/aa-blog-post-12-system-failure-february-18-2013-pdf-160k.
² http://www.philly.com/philly/hp/news_update/265762741.html.
³ http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2013/08/clarion_university_restructuri.html.  Penn Live, August 16, 2013.
http://www.post-gazette.com/education/2013/09/11/Edinboro-University-plans-faculty-program-cuts/stories/201309110152. post-gazette.com, September 11, 2013.
http://www.pennlive.com/midstate/index.ssf/2013/09/mansfield_university_becomes_t.html. Penn Live, September 26, 2013.
http://www.post-gazette.com/news/education/2013/10/30/East-Stroudsburg-is-fourth-state-owned-Pennsylvania-university-to-announce-cuts/stories/201310300139. post-gazette.com, October 30, 2013.
https://www.keepandshare.com/doc/6756902/tribune-review-december-24-2013-slippery-rock-university-facing-10-million-deficit-possible-l. Tribune-Review, December 24, 2013.
http://www.prweb.com/releases/2014/03/prweb11702245.htm.
http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=angelo%20armenti.

Monday, June 30, 2014

A Controlling and Indifferent Authority

Last week’s post, “The Seeds of Revolution - The West Chester Story,” included the following paragraph:
 
‘There is no doubt that West Chester University, the other 13 PASSHE universities, and the students who rely upon them, have been subjected to ongoing injustice for many years by a controlling and indifferent authority—the PASSHE Board of Governors—the agent that should be, but it not now, representing the interests of all of PASSHE’s Financial Stakeholders, i.e., its Majority as well as its Minority Stakeholders.’
 
Earlier blog posts cited a news article¹ with headline, “State Colleges Revolt as Years of Cuts Divide U.S. Campuses.” The article described a growing national trend in which state colleges across America have initiated efforts to “shake off government control.”  West Chester University’s effort to achieve a greater degree of independence from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is prominently cited in the article.
 
                                                                                                                        Tacitus
    
So powerful, natural and spontaneous is the human aversion to the thought of being oppressed that individuals throughout history have been willing to defy enormous challenges and suffer great hardships in the struggle to throw off that oppression.  History shows that if tyranny is too onerous and inexorable to overcome in any other way, violent revolution is often seen and undertaken as the only viable option.
 
But in polite society, at least in those societies based on laws that grant and protect individual freedoms, serious injustice of any kind can be confronted and potentially shed via non-violent means—both legal and political—which our society makes readily available to all citizens through its Constitution and laws.
 
                                                                                             Viktor E. Frankl
  
With three decades of “privatization without representation” as a stimulus that has been imposed² on the public colleges across America, a confrontational but otherwise non-violent response in the form of legal and political action to secure the transfer of power and property required to rectify the injustice of that stimulus is both warranted and appropriate.
 
As we saw in last week’s blog post, initiating a confrontation in the form of legal action to force—via the intervention of a legislature or court—a transfer of power and property may be justified as seen below:
 
“When a group of citizens comes to believe it is being subjected to an ongoing injustice by a controlling and indifferent authority, it has a right to confront that authority, legally and politically, in an effort to secure the transfer of power and property required to fairly rectify the injustice in question.”
 
The metaphor of “revolution” (albeit “non-violent revolution”) by the state colleges, as a response to the stimulus of many decades of “privatization without representation” by the States, is so novel as to call out for guidance as to the proper way in which to conduct such a revolution.  Just as I was pondering the words “a controlling and indifferent authority,” King George III of England popped into my mind.
The American Revolution

Like most American school children of my era, I learned to memorize the beautiful and poetic Preamble to The Declaration of Independence, the first paragraph of which begins with these words:
 
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
 
And while I learned to recite the entire preamble from memory many years ago, it wasn’t until many years later that I came to understand and appreciate the significance of the last sentence in the above paragraph.  In making the case for the need for “the separation” from England, the Congress of July 4, 1776 included in its Declaration a very long list of “repeated injuries and usurpations” by King George III.  In fact, half the lines in the entire document are devoted to a “bill of particulars” indicting the King.³ His transgressions are introduced thusly: “To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”     
 
What I take from all this is that, in the non-violent revolutions initiated by the State colleges across America to “shake off government control,” it will be necessary and wise to show proper respect for the opinions of others by enumerating, as part of their own declarations of independence, the “injuries and usurpations” of which the particular “controlling and indifferent authority” in each State may be guilty. 
 
The clarity and accuracy of these bills of particulars will play a key role in influencing the opinions of all those who will read and consider the validity of the cases made by the State colleges in their respective efforts to throw off government control.
 
¹ http://www.bloomberg.com/news/print/2014-06-04/state-colleges-revolt-as-years-of-cuts-divide-u-s-campuses.html.
² http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=angelo%20armenti.
³http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/print_friendly.html?page=declaration_transcript_content.html&title=NARA%20%7C%20The%20Declaration%20of%20Independence%3A%20A%20Transcription.

 

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Seeds of Revolution - The West Chester Story

"Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."
  John F. Kennedy

Jacques Barzun has defined “revolution” as the “violent transfer of power and property in the name of an idea.”
 
In recent news from Iraq, we see an initially successful “violent transfer of power and property for the sake of an idea,” that is, a revolution fitting Barzun’s definition, in which the idea behind the violence appears to be the establishment of a political-religious state known as an Islamic Caliphate.
 
In addition to many familiar violent revolutions in the World—America in 1776, Russia in 1917 and Cuba in 1953—there have also been a large number of non-violent revolutions in recent history, including a number of which that took on names of flowers or colors, e.g., the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989, the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004.
 
The World it seems, with still too many exceptions, has been trending toward a kinder and gentler way of resolving its grievances, both in terms of revolutions as well as with disputes between individuals.
 
The first duel in North America is said to have occurred at Plymouth Rock in 1621.  America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, was killed in a duel by his political rival, Aaron Burr, in 1804.  Though “illegal,” dueling in America continued after Hamilton’s death for another hundred years.
 
The carnage of the Civil War is thought to have been a key factor in turning attitudes against dueling. Gradually, the resolution of disputes through the evolving American legal system began to be favored.
 
All Revolutions are Confrontational and Hence Dangerous
 
Violent revolutions are more dangerous than non-violent ones, but even non-violent revolutions can have negative consequences for those who initiate them—because all revolutions are confrontational. They are always confrontational because they involve the transfer of power and property—two things the current holders are usually not inclined to give up without a fight and/or appropriate compensation. 
  
What factors throughout history have stirred humans, despite great risks, to engage in revolution?

Many great minds in human history have pondered this question and their insights suggest a pattern:
 
“Revolutions arise from inequalities, numerical or qualitative—from a numerical mass claiming an equality denied to them, or from a minority claiming a superiority denied to them.” 
  Aristotle                                                                                   
 
The seed of revolution is repression.”  
  Woodrow Wilson
 
When dictatorship is a fact, revolution becomes a right.
  Victor Hugo
 
While the quotations cited above all appear to refer to violent revolutions, the basic idea still applies to non-violent revolutions, such as for example a confrontation in the form of legal action to force—via the intervention of a legislature or court—the transfer of power and property in a totally non-violent way.  With that understanding, the pattern described by the above quotations may be summarized as follows:
 
“When a group of citizens comes to believe it is being subjected to an ongoing injustice by a controlling and indifferent authority, it has a right to confront that authority, legally and politically, in an effort to secure the transfer of power and property required to fairly rectify the injustice in question.”
 
The Revolt of the State Colleges
 
This takes us back to Michael McDonald’s Bloomberg News¹ article: “State Colleges Revolt as Years of Cuts Divide U.S. Campuses,” and also takes us back to West Chester University and the recent  initiative by supporters to remove it from the PASSHE system of 14 “state-owned” universities and permit it and other qualifying PASSHE universities to become “State-Related” universities.  If successful, these efforts would amount to a de facto transfer of power and property in the name of perhaps the following idea:
 
 Escaping the Injustice of Three Decades of Privatization Without Representation

There is no doubt that West Chester University, the other 13 PASSHE universities, and the students who rely upon them, have been subjected to ongoing injustice for many years by a controlling and indifferent authority—the PASSHE Board of Governors—the agent that should be, but it not now, representing the interests of all of PASSHE’s Financial Stakeholders, i.e., its Majority as well as its Minority Stakeholders.²
 
Although West Chester’s legal and political confrontation is non-violent, it nevertheless exposes the initiators of the confrontation to “negative consequences” or what some might even call “retaliation,” from the agents of the controlling and indifferent authority that, as the source of the repression, has become the target of the legal and political confrontation intended to throw off that repression.
 
It must be expected then that agents of the controlling and indifferent authority, who clearly benefit from the status quo prompting the “revolt,” will go on to attack the perceived “leaders” of the revolt.    
 
Recent newspaper accounts of West Chester University’s attempt to become “state-related” have garnered a lot of attention, with both supporters and opponents of the idea politely having their say.  
 
But that civil tone changed the other day with a Post-Gazette article³ that seems to conjure if not actually portend retaliation against vulnerable members of the West Chester University community who are suspected of supporting the “revolutionary” idea of West Chester leaving the PASSHE system.
 
This change in tone suggests another familiar movie theme: “The Empire Strikes Back.”


³ http://www.post-gazette.com/local/2014/06/22/West-Chester-University/stories/201406220080.







 

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Peasants are Revolting!


The History of the World - Part I
 
After posting last week’s blog about the revolt of the State Colleges, a great line from Mel Brooks’ movie comedy, The History of the World - Part I—“The Peasants are Revolting!”—popped into my head.
 
That gag line from Count de Monet to King Louis XVI of France gets great laughs because of its double-meaning potential.  Adding to the laughter is the fact that Count de Monet, played by Harvey Korman, is repeatedly called “Count da Money” in this movie segment spoof about the French Revolution.
 
The King, played by Mel Brooks, cashes in on the double entendre with: “You said it, they stink on ice.”  
 
Mel Brooks’ movies are never subtle; hence the King’s contempt for ‘his people’ goes beyond hyperbole in this parody in which live peasants cry out in pain under the red carpets on which the royals walk.
 
Humor, even grossly exaggerated humor, is more than capable of exposing sordid underlying truths, as suggested by the persistence of political satire in human history, from ancient times to the present day.
 
Humor as Social Corrective
 
The connection between deadly serious issues in society on the one hand, and satirical or comedic portrayals of those issues on the other, is well-established and can be understood in the context of “Humor as Social Corrective,” as described¹ in Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum, 3rd ed., by Laurence Behrens and Leonard J. Rosen, eds., which excerpts the work of Avner Ziv.
 
Ziv quotes Charlie Chaplin, one of the greatest comedians of all time, as saying:
 
“The function of comedy is to sharpen our sensitivity to the perversions of justice within the society in which we live.”
 
Ziv also ascribes the following two quotes to Stendhal, a pseudonym for Henri Beyle (1783-1842):

“The aim of comedy is to expose man to the mockery of the audience.” 
 
“People may accept rebuke but cannot bear to be laughed at, and are prepared to be wicked but not ridiculous.” 
 
One of the earliest recorded examples of a satirical statement made in jest about a king dates back more than 2,000 years!  While just last week, 60 Minutes featured a story about Bassem Youssef, the political satirist, who has come to be known as the “John Stewart of Egyptian TV.”
 
Both of these stories involve satirists who mocked powerful individuals in their respective societies, and came to face serious repercussions as a result.  
 
The danger posed throughout history to those who dare to mock the powerful has been eloquently described by Elliott Oring² in an article entitled “Risky Business: Political Jokes under Repressive Regimes,” and includes this account from ancient history:

“When Theocritus of Chios was told that he would be pardoned by King Antigonus I (382-301 BCE) if only he would "stand before the eyes of the king," Theocritus, knowing the king had only one eye, responded, "Well, then, reprieve is impossible."
Theocritus was executed for this remark.”
 
The 60 Minutes segment tells the story of an Egyptian cardiac surgeon who was inspired to become a political satirist after seeing Jon Stewart, of “The Daily Show,” on American TV.  As shown in that vignette, Bassem Youssef has become concerned about his personal safety and that of his staff, as the “government” takes steps to prevent his very popular program from being aired on Egyptian TV.
 
The Dichotomy Between Reality and Satire
 
The difference between real situations and satirically portrayed versions of them is stark since satire tries to be funny, while the underlying situations being mocked may not be funny in the least.      
 
Mel Brooks’ parody of the French Revolution was hilarious, but there was nothing funny about the Revolution itself.  Unlike Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and Robespierre, all of whom eventually lost their heads, Mel Brooks could safely mock the French Revolution without fear because, unlike the others, he was safely separated from the guillotine, in both distance and time, by the Atlantic Ocean and 225 years. 
 
Next week, we will return to the theme, “The Revolt of the State Colleges,” by asking a critical question: “What factors throughout history have stirred humans, despite great risks, to engage in revolution?
 
¹ https://www.msu.edu/~jdowell/ziv.html.
² http://polsci.jodyb.net/5.pdf.