Monday, August 26, 2013

Very Smart Phone

Listening to the news while driving home today there was a commercial for a cell phone service provider that was aimed directly at students about to return to school. I’m not a fan of commercials aimed at kids but I recognize that in a market economy, enhancing a sense of need helps create sales and that the student market is certainly a robust source of these sales.

Cell phone service, especially when it involves a smart phone, is irresistible to kids. These phones used to be in abundance when students entered high school. Now they are omni-present in middle school and making inroads into elementary school. The smart phone is also irresistible to me, and I’m using it in ways I never expected and the benefits are clear.

Going out to eat in Manhattan yesterday, I did my usual checking in Zagat’s and in OpenTable. I quickly decided on a midtown restaurant and made the reservation. But then I looked at my smart phone and specifically at a package called ABC Eats. This application provides you with the latest sanitary ratings of the restaurant, both the letter grade and the actual recent reports. Once I entered the restaurant name, the letter grade of “B” appeared and the actual reports quickly demonstrated why this wasn’t- at this time- an “A” restaurant. In the report there was mention of unsanitary bathroom conditions as well as the presence of filth flies. I immediately began searching for a replacement restaurant, which is easy to find in midtown Manhattan; the original restaurant is still on my list and as soon as the grade becomes an “A” and the comments become more routine, I will certainly go there.

My uses of the smart phone are broader than just food. Using it for email goes without saying; doing my banking using an app is another great advantage; finding weather reports is another plus; and so is the ability to download apps for almost any major city that provides handy advice on must see sights; plus hotel information, a photo album, a free video chat capability, my favorite music, a calculator, a flashlight, etc. The phone has it all.

But the phone also has an academic value that I am more and more appreciating. As an economist, I value the ability to access stock information with just a 10 minute delay; I also value the ability to directly access information on the American Economy that covers all the key statistics. During the 2012 presidential election, I looked daily and often more frequently at an app that provided all the key election polling results. I have apps for all the major newspapers and I appreciate the bulletins that are sent to me on a regular basis with the ability through the phone to access more details as soon as they are available. Thanks to my smart phone, I am clearly more up-to-date and savvy as both an economist and a citizen.

I’m still very much opposed to marketing to kids but I’m also very much an advocate for all a smart phone offers.

Monday, August 19, 2013


In my last blog, I noted my high regard for the ratings and more importantly the objectivity of Consumer Reports. But there are so many goods and services not ranked by Consumer Reports or any other objective judge that in many cases we are left to our own improvised rankings or, and even worse, questionable third party judgments.

I have for many years used my own ratings system for rankings of hotels. Within a particular star category, I judge a hotel by the orange juice available at breakfast. If the juice tastes like it comes from watered down concentrate, I immediately downgrade the hotel; if the orange juice tastes fresh squeezed, the hotel rises in my opinion. Bathrooms are also often good proxies for the quality of a hotel. In a recent trip, the bathroom provided was so small that even my 15 pound dog would find the accommodations tight. Chocolate on the pillow, on the other hand, has turned out not to be a good proxy for hotel quality, though I do believe that providing chocolate mints is a good indication that the provider doesn’t understand and appreciate the richness and quality of chocolate.

In higher education we have many ratings of programs. Some use a variety of factors to make their judgments; others use very few. In a number of cases, the rankings are solely based on the opinions of peers, both administrators as well as faculty. I know there are, without question, many knowledgeable administrators and faculty but the system is still inherently and seriously flawed. In my years as dean, I could talk about a significant number of graduate and undergraduate programs based on a solid and significant knowledge base. What percentage of the total number of programs in the field does “significant” constitute? Realistically 5-10%. For some, the percentage would be higher and for others their knowledge base is less reliable. As a long serving provost who has done and continues to do accreditation visits, my knowledge base is even more limited given the much larger universe of schools. Without question, I have tidbits of information for many schools; ranking should not be based on tidbits.

Many of us already indicate the equivalent of “don’t know” for those schools or programs where our knowledge base is sketchy or worse. Some of us valiantly go through the entire list provided and check off a ranking for virtually every school listed. Please stop ranking any school or program that you don’t have detailed knowledge about. If the rankings are to have meaning they must be grounded in fact, reality and real knowledge. Absent that information, we should not respond. If all of us took the pledge to only evaluate based on the facts, when we have the facts, there would be far fewer responses to the ratings questionnaires but far more accurate and reliable information.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Objective Evaluation

No different than many of my peers, I have strong feelings on many issues. Some are well grounded in fact; others are “gut reactions” on a much more emotional level. Likely, my evaluations, opinions and judgments reflect my values, which impact their objectivity.

When I purchase products, I look for the most highly rated product at the best price possible with the greatest reliability. And where I look first is Consumer Reports (CR). I have been reading and relying on CR for decades; I am a lifetime subscriber; and I am as impressed today as I was when I first started reading CR decades ago. The only major change in my CR reading habits is that I glance at the magazine when it arrives, but I do my research using the online version.

Consumer Reports has not been thrilled by many American cars over the years; Japanese and German cars prevail here and I think their judgment has been accurate. Most car magazines have more widely different results but the objectivity is often compromised with ratings that give significant points to styling or the fun factor or some other intangible way of skewing results. Often, the difference between first and last in the typical car magazine is directly tied to these somewhat subjective standards. I don’t need or want a magazine to make style evaluations for me; I’ll do that myself. What I need is a full evaluation of ride, handling, acceleration, gas mileage, reliability and safety results. Here CR delivers and delivers well.

New cars have come and new cars have gone and the ratings in CR for American cars are consistently in the fair to middling group; that is until now. The new Chevrolet Impala has just been evaluated and is now rated as the top large size car by CR joining the highly acclaimed ranks of cars such as Audi and Infiniti.

In evaluating the Impala CR stated that “with its 2014 redesign, the Chevrolet Impala has been dramatically transformed from a woefully uncompetitive and outdated model—one that was to be avoided even as a free upgrade at the rental-car counter—into a thoroughly modern and remarkably enjoyable car.” CR continues by noting that “This phoenix like rise has propelled it from the bottom of our large-sedan ratings to being one of the top-scoring cars we’ve tested overall. . . . and in the process, it’s now reclaimed a stature befitting such a classic nameplate.” In addition to the terrific write up, Impala received 95 out of 100 possible points and was ranked higher than upscale sedans from everyone including Acura, Lexus, Toyota, Hyundai, and Nissan.

I supported the government bailout of General Motors and of Chrysler. They were each effectively given a new lease on life and both, as well as Ford, are doing a great job utilizing the opportunity. Our industry and our products can compete effectively with the best. What a terrific change for American automobiles. Now if the industry can resist taking the consumer for granted, which I am convinced caused some of the earlier difficulties, American automobiles should continue to thrive. This is a good lesson for all of us to remember in industry as well as in education.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Nance

I was not familiar with the word nance until I looked it up after the announcement that Nathan Lane would be coming back to Broadway as the lead role in The Nance. A nance is an effeminate man and is sometimes also used to describe a gay man. I finally made it to The Nance last week and found, as is predictable, that Nathan Lane is terrific in the lead role, especially the comic aspects but also the sad aspects. I try to see Nathan Lane in whatever he does on Broadway and I am yet to be disappointed. He is a consistently brilliant performer, and for me The Producers and The Adams Family are just two examples of huge talent.

The Nance is an entertaining production but ultimately a very sad story. Nathan Lane plays Chancy Miles, a nance, both on and off the stage. For the early part of the story, Chancy’s life and success flourishes as a result of his vaudeville talent as well as a chance encounter with Ned. The encounter takes place in a Greenwich Village Horn & Hardart Automat. Automats rapidly disappeared when I was a young kid but I was one of many who were fascinated by having the food in little compartments, behind glass doors and just a nickel and a dime away. I’m clearly dating myself by remembering Automats, but when the last one in New York (42nd Street and Third Avenue) disappeared in 1991, I felt it was a real loss.

As The Nance evolves, Chancy and his behavior both on and off stage clash with increasingly conservative anti gay values and laws. He gets arrested, ultimately loses his job, and worst of all, he loses his significant other. Furthermore, vaudeville is dead in New York and Chancy can’t go elsewhere to work because of his parole board restrictions.

It’s nice to fast forward at moments like this and reflect on what has been a significant decline in discrimination in recent years. An African American President, and gay marriage are just two examples of what for me is a more free, more open, more tolerant world. I’m pleased to be alive at a time like this.

But I think we also have to remember what did happen, and be vigilant in making sure that progress is expanded and not eroded. We need to admit what we have done wrong. Our society and all societies have made and are still making mistakes. To airbrush history and sugar coat mistakes so that we look perfect and always virtuous is to deny reality. We have not always done the right thing, both at home and abroad. The mistakes we have made are serious, though overall our progress and our good work has been impressive.

In educating our kids from an early age, through lifelong learning, we need to pay special attention to teaching reality, the good, the bad, and the ugly. What we have accomplished and what we still have to do, is less likely to be taken for granted if we know where we started.