Monday, October 22, 2012

Pizza Debate

The Presidential Debate at Hofstra went off without a hitch and more importantly will clearly be a significant moment in terms of who will be the next President of the United States. The questions asked reflected well on the Town Hall participants and the passionate answers given shed more light on complex issues that need resolution sooner than later.

Just as individuals are judged at moments like this by the quality of their questions and answers, so are corporations judged by the quality of their products as well as corporate earnings plus their commitment to being good citizens. By the measure of corporations being good citizens, in my opinion, Pizza Hut, the national pizza chain that offered free pizza for life to anyone asking President Obama and Governor Romney the question of “pepperoni or sausage,” deserves a failing grade. And since the corporation also encouraged a follow up question regarding pizza toppings, an additional failing grade is also in order.

I wasn’t surprised that no one asked the pizza question during the debate since it is clear to everyone that there are critical issues we are confronting as a nation and as citizens of this planet. The time for frivolous questions is long gone. Being able to ask a question at the debate represents an opportunity and it is counterproductive for an important corporation to create temptation to squander that opportunity or turn it into a fiasco. This is not a matter of having a sense of humor; rather it represents using common sense.

Our work as educators involves cultivating and recognizing accomplishments. We applaud student accomplishment and the degrees we award are the cumulative acknowledgement of those accomplishments. If Pizza Hut or any corporation would like to have a contest revolving around a Presidential Debate, let the focus be on the best question asked and recognition for the person who asked that question. This could be done by means of a poll or utilizing a panel of experts. Either way, it would assure even more attention and focus on a critical question and a critical issue. Democracies aren’t strengthened by deliberating between “pepperoni or sausage.” The classic economic tradeoff of guns or butter still applies today while the pizza tradeoff is just irrelevant. Democracies are strengthened by asking fundamental questions, having thoughtful discussions, and dealing with issues that require resolution. My pizza preference by the way is plain pizza, prepared by a business that understands its success is grounded in the success of our country and our ability to utilize the best minds to confront the issues that we have no choice but to confront sooner rather than later.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Debate

In 2008, when Hofstra hosted the third Presidential debate, I received an email from a person I attended high school with, many years earlier. This person was not a close friend and there had been no contact for all the years between high school and early October 2008. In the email, the person indicated that he had been thinking about me for the last 40 years and, by the way, did I have a spare ticket to the debate. I responded (nicely) indicating that all our tickets go to our students who are selected by way of a lottery of all Hofstra students interested in attending the debate. This email was one of many that I received last time and the email requests are starting again now that we are approaching the October 16th debate that will be hosted by Hofstra.

I think it is terrific that we hosted a Presidential debate four years ago and it is as least as terrific that we are again hosting a debate. Almost all of the students who were here during the last debate have graduated and the students who are here now are as excited and energized as they can be. More and more, when I am attending events on campus or just eating on campus or walking on campus, I hear members of our community—especially our students—talking about the upcoming debate. A number of our courses are tied to debate-related themes and many of our guest speakers are focused on the Presidential election and the issues confronted by our country and our planet. Students have already suggested that Hofstra host a debate every four years and I think there is wisdom in their position. Hosting a debate on campus and all the associated activities clearly demonstrates to the students that this is their world and their issues and that it makes sense for them to be concerned and involved.

I am very positive regarding the quality of a Hofstra education but I also feel strongly that an outstanding education is more than a classroom experience. I recognize how necessary it is for many students pursuing their college degree to also work part-time in addition, so I am especially pleased when a significant number of these students are also involved in civic engagement activities and other volunteer activities. I am convinced that having the debate on campus increases participation in these activities as it also increases voter registration. I am by nature an optimistic economist and I don’t consider that combination to be an oxymoron. But it is clear that the problems we confront are daunting. An educated population is absolutely essential to successfully confronting these problems and I remain a passionate advocate for higher education. But I am more and more convinced that along with the education there needs to be a buy-in that we are all in this together and that we all need to be invested in developing solutions. A Presidential debate on a campus tremendously increases the buy-in to developing solutions among that community. What more can we do so that a wonderful every four year event on the Hofstra campus and/or other campuses is just one of many happenings designed to convince our students that a prosperous future involves their commitment today?

Monday, October 8, 2012

Kids and Cars

I grew up during the time that Detroit’s Big 3 ruled the automobile industry and grew up with an automobile being an important part of my American dream. Since I grew up in New York City with the benefit of a great mass transit system, I’m not really sure why I was so car focused but there is no doubt that I studied every fin, checked every instrument panel, and knew all horsepower figures and 0-60 miles per hour acceleration data. And very much related to the times I grew up in, cars had no apparent flaws even though the mileage and the quality left much to be desired.

To this day, I still read every car magazine and remain focused on cars, now regardless of where they are produced. Crain’s Autoweek is now at the top of my list of must readings regarding automobiles (and just for the record, Consumer Reports is at the top of my list for any and every consumer product). In the September 17th issues of Autoweek, there is an article on “Love of Driving Lost?” subtitled “Gen Y doesn’t share the same lust for wheels as past generations.” The article by Jayne O’Donnell quotes Kit Yarrow, a marketing and psychology professor at Golden Gate University, who makes the point that “young people are not burning for freedom from their parents or the independence they can get from a car,” and that “teenagers are happy with the freedom they get from smartphones and computers” (which Professor Yarrow calls “private brain places”). Yarrow’s final point is that Gen Y is more visually oriented than previous generations and that “brands and products represent who they are,” which “makes driving a clunker just to have wheels less acceptable.’”

The same article discounts the economy as a primary reason why cars are no longer irresistible. “Some say its debt, college or otherwise keeping Gen Y out of the driver’s seat. But consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow says that never stopped previous generations…from getting a nice junker until they could afford better.” I think Kit Yarrow is certainly correct in explaining some Gen Y behavior and noting that the impact of computers, smartphones and the internet cannot be minimized. Absent her analysis, my initial position would certainly have been that it’s the economy that matters most together with the reality that the automobile, though still very desirable, has substantial costs that are much more visible today. I would point to the decline in family wealth, and the uncertain economy making it harder for families to cover all the necessary costs of living as well as a car for their driving age kids. I would also point out that the costs and other requirements associated with automobile ownership are much clearer and more substantial today than for previous generations: Insurance requirements, credit requirements, gas mileage costs, environmental impact. I have no doubts that the economics based answer is at least partially correct, but this is a case where economics alone would not provide a sufficient explanation. Our kids are different and this analysis helps us as educators understand that difference.

Monday, October 1, 2012


A recent online issue of University Business dealt with the topic on stress on college students. From my days in college, the only stress I remember is social stress and the stress of fitting in but that isn’t the stress being talked today. Today’s stress is financial stress and it is clearly manifesting itself on today’s generation of students.

University Business summarizes a study completed by Inceptia which presents the following “key findings:”

One third of respondents said financial stressors have had a negative impact on their academic performance or progress. 
Seventy-four percent of respondents are working during the academic year and 15 percent are working full-time. 
Students who work more than 20 hours per week during the academic year are significantly more likely to report that financial stress has had a negative impact on their academic progress or performance and that they reduced their academic course load due to this stress.
None of these results are surprising; many students have always had to work while in college and a constrained economy inevitably results in this number rising. And the more hours that students need to work the more the stress level is enhanced. Not measured in this study is the fact that the financial strain and the hours worked can diminish the higher education experience in very tangible ways. Every year, I am sure we all hear about students who can’t accept internships (which are often unpaid) because they are dependent on the income earned through working part-time. Every year, I am sure we all hear about students who can’t take advantage of a study abroad experience because there are both extra costs and forgone income involved in taking advantage of such an opportunity. And every year, there are many students who can’t participate in co-curricular activities because the time involved reduces their ability to work. If the average full-time student is working more than 20 hours per week, something has to give.

The impact of financial stress is even more profound than the ramifications noted above. More students and their families are opting for lower priced higher education alternatives. These alternatives involve less personalized education, impacting everything from class size to advisement/counseling services to co-curricular activities. Many students can still do well in such an environment; others struggle and/or do not maximize their potential.

What can we do to help? Certainly government, both at the state level and the federal level, should continue to view higher education as a necessary and worthwhile investment in the economic success of our country. To compete in a global economy requires a sophisticated skill set; it can’t happen without a highly educated work force. And all of us should remember that a more sophisticated work force will likely earn more and pay more in taxes. But we in higher education can also do more to ameliorate the stress level. There should be more fundraising for scholarships that allow students to undertake unpaid internships or participate in study abroad opportunities. Co-curricular activities should be scheduled in such a way that even working students have opportunities to participate. We have known for a long time that the benefits of higher education accrue to society as well as to individuals and, more than ever, we should be guided by that reality today.