Monday, September 30, 2013

Conflict or Cooperation

Our Business School is named for Frank Zarb who has had a remarkable career in government and business including service as President Ford's energy czar.  Because Mr. Zarb has had such a distinguished career spanning almost half a century, we have been recording his oral history to include with the Zarb papers and materials we already have in our library.  One video clip contains a conversation between Representative John Dingell and Mr. Zarb and contains an important lesson for today's government leaders. The lesson concerns cooperation between the Democratic and Republican parties to successfully confront, what in their case was the energy crisis.  Cooperation carried the day then; confrontation threatens our economic recovery today.

The fight today is over health care, Obamacare as it is widely known, and instead of cooperation we have escalating confrontation. I remember from when I was growing up, the effort to pass Medicare and the efforts to discredit Medicare as socialized medicine.  I was persuaded in those days that health care support for the elderly, especially the poor elderly was an important responsibility of government in an affluent society.  Time has proven both the need for and the merit in a system of support for the elderly just when they most need access to health care.

The fight against Obamacare has that same tone.  The message is we need to stop Uncle Sam before he takes over our health care system.  But we have so many uninsured individuals and families that need help, that our affluent society has a responsibility to do more.  In addition with our current system we have tremendous unrecovered health care costs and the accompanying loss in productivity.  For these reasons, I support Obamacare but also understand the concern from the critics.

Our economy is in a fragile and halting recovery.  Inflation is still low, the unemployment rate is slowly dropping, the GDP is increasing at a meaningful rate and the stock market has flirted with record highs.  Against this backdrop, government is hitting a debt ceiling and there is an effort to tie any help with the economy to a defunding and destroying of Obamacare. 

We need cooperation and even more we need for government leaders, both Democratic and Republican to remember the pain of the recent recession and the need to continue cultivating the recovery. Combining the health care bill with debt ceiling legislation is a recipe for economic malaise.  Where are the Frank Zarbs and John Dingells of 2013? 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Good Food

Our common reading for all new first year students was  The Good Food Revolution and our featured speaker during Welcome Week was Will Allen one of the book’s co-authors.  Both the book and the presentation were well received and I totally agree that this is an important message for all college students.

Will Allen is an imposing figure.  He still looks like the basketball player he was in college and professionally and everything he says is stated with passion and belief.  When he first started speaking to students, he announced that his PowerPoint presentation was 1054 slides long.  Everyone laughed but 1054 slides later we were all more passionate and more convinced.

In the beginning of his talk, Will Allen talked about the connection between good health and good food. Both are clearly inextricably interwoven and good food is a facilitator of good health. Allen also talked about the importance of fertile soil, that is absent of dangerous chemicals and he talked about the value and importance of urban farming. His comments registered well with the students and registered equally well with me and my colleagues also sitting in the audience.

Growing up, my diet was rich in fruits and vegetables.  We didn’t have local farmers’ markets but we did have plenty of stores that specialized just in fresh fruits and vegetables.  My diet was also rich (likely over-rich) in meats (especially beef) since my father was a butcher and my parents owned a mom and pop butcher shop just around the corner from where we lived. The best way to illustrate the family philosophy on meat is that my father felt Thanksgiving, given its importance, should be celebrated with a roast beef rather than with a roast turkey. And yes, in many of my early years, the turkey lost out to the beef.  Ultimately we yelled foul (fowl) and my father agreed to change the menu to the more traditional offering.  My diet growing up didn’t include soda, probably included too little sea food, and eating out was not part of the offerings except on a few major holidays a year. Fast foods were also not prevalent when I was growing up.

My kids love most fast foods and would eat chicken nuggets for at least two meals a day if they had the opportunity.  I am appreciative that in our school district there is a vigilant parents committee that reviews menus and promotes healthy eating and we try to reinforce these values in what we serve at home.  And yet given how busy everyone is we do eat out, and eat overly processed foods more than we should.  And I seem to have passed my sweet tooth to my kids.

What is most important about Will Allen’s message is the emphasis on food education and food growing/preparation.  We should all buy into The Good Food Revolution.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Welcome Week 2013 Speech to the Class of 2017

Since in my last blog I talked about what I was going to say to our new first year undergraduate students, my blog for this week will be my actual Welcome Week 2013 speech to the Class of 2017.

Good morning.  I am Herman Berliner, Hofstra’s Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, and I am pleased to add my welcome to Hofstra.  For the last few weeks, I have been thinking about what my message should be when today happens and I have the opportunity to talk with you about your Hofstra experience and your future.  But before we talk about your experience and your future, let’s move quickly into the future and go to year 2154.  What is so special about that year -- other than all of us will be more than 154 years old?

If you have seen Elysium, you will know that the movie takes place at that time.  In fact, it starts by noting that in the year 2154, two classes of people exist, the very wealthy who live on a pristine man-made space station called Elysium where all disease has been eliminated and people live happily, healthily and affluently ever after; and the rest of the population, who live on an overpopulated, ruined Earth.  Any effort to move from earth to Elysium is thwarted; illegal immigrants to Elysium are simply killed.

Neill Blomkamp, the writer and producer of Elysium, has not only made a science fiction film; he also actually believes in this scenario.  In an interview with The Guardian,  Blomkamp, who comes from South Africa, stated, “The issues raised by Elysium have been in existence as long as homo sapiens.  You’d literally have to change the human genome to stop wealth discrepancy.”  Neill continues by noting:

We have biological systems built into us that were very advantageous for us, up until we became a functioning civilization 10,000 years ago.  We are literally coded to preserve life, procreate and get food—and that’s not gonna change.  The question is whether you can somehow overpower certain parts of the mammalian DNA and try to… take…away wealth and pour it out for the rest of the planet.

I don’t believe the future will really be this gloomy and I’m not here to convince you to see the movie but I do want you to think about the future—both your future and the future of our planet and humanity itself.

Let’s start by talking about being at a University, either as a student or as a faculty member, staff member, or administrator.  Universities are great places to be and Hofstra is a particularly great University.  I’m an economist by training; quoting a friend of mine, “an economist is someone who would have been an accountant but didn’t have the personality.”  Please think about that.  Meanwhile, in addition to being an economist, I’m also interested in politics, education, the environment, a little bit of basketball, cars and theater.  I have been to almost every Broadway musical so I know from first-hand experience that when our students put on a production of Gypsy this fall it will certainly be professional quality.  Please go to see it.  Overall, no matter what your interests are, the range and quality of what we offer on campus translates into outstanding experiences.  You can major in pre-med; you can major in economics; you can major in education; or in history or almost 140 other choices, but you can actually do so much more.  Think about taking a course in another area outside your major, take a minor, pursue a dual major—go to events on campus or volunteer through our Center for Civic Engagement.  Attend a lecture from our Kalikow Center for the Study of the American Presidency.  Listen to a Pulitzer Prize winner as part of our Great Writers Great Readings series.  Participate in our fall festival.  In the past, we have had Jimmy Fallon headline the fall festival comedy show and had performances by Cobra Starship, Taking Back Sunday, Big Sean and Snoop Dogg as well as Rick Ross.  I don’t know who these groups or performers are (other than Jimmy Fallon) but I may be the only provost who’s taken his younger daughter to a One Direction concert and his older daughter to the Jonas Brothers.  In both cases my hearing did come back within 48 hours.  Getting back to what we offer:  Make use of our fitness center, attend an athletic event, swim in our pool.  I’m a regular in the pool but I claim no resemblance to Michael Phelps.  Actually, in sports I’m more like Mike Wazowski from Monsters University. We have so many things happening that no one is able to go to everything that happens on a 24/7 University campus. Don’t overdo it, but do take advantage of what we offer.  Many of my interests developed when I was a college student.  Take a chance.  Try something new even if it isn’t in your comfort zone.  Open your mind.  You won’t regret it and it can help you secure a successful future.

Let’s go back to Elysium for a moment. If I were alive in 2154, I doubt that I would be part of the wealthy or privileged few who live in this outer space paradise.  More likely I would be living on earth.  Most of you might be in the same situation.  There is still time to avoid such an Elysium scenario but the responsibility will rest with you and your contemporaries to confront the issues that my generation has not and is not fully confronting.  Issues that must be confronted if the earth is to become a better place to live rather than a more “overpopulated” and “ruined planet.”  We can clearly do so much better than a world with a few haves and too many have nots.

Your Hofstra education will help you deal with those problems and confront the issues that must be resolved. 

One more immediate issue that all universities are dealing with is how to best promote, protect and uphold academic integrity.  To that end, we have implemented an Honor Code which all of us are being asked to sign.  I am steadfast in my commitment to the Honor Code.  Let me be very clear.

Plagiarism and other forms of cheating do not represent your quest for knowledge.  Instead, plagiarism is simply cheating and constitutes presenting someone else’s work as your own.

One of my favorite stories regarding academic dishonesty features two students in a history course who emailed a faculty member a few hours after an exam was given in class indicating they had a flat tire on the way to campus, and therefore could not take the exam at that time.  The faculty member asked them both to come in to take a make-up, placed each of them in a separate room, and gave them their make-up exams.  First question on each of their multiple choice exams was “The location of the tire that went flat was a) driver’s side front, b) driver’s side rear, c) passenger side front; d) passenger side rear.”  The results of the exam and the rest of this story really are history: each student came up with a different answer to that question.

As diverse as we are, we must all unite in stating it is simply unacceptable to cheat.  Respect for integrity is inextricably interwoven and essential to your success as a Hofstra student.  So is respect for diversity.  We are a diverse population at Hofstra but we are also a microcosm of the planet. 

Our University celebrates and encourages diversity.  As indicated in our Diversity Mission Statement:

The University believes that institutions of learning have a responsibility to provide and sustain multiple cultures, to encourage scholarship and knowledge production incorporating multiple perspectives and to demonstrate commitment to fair and equal access to higher education.

Diversity includes the recognition and incorporation of a multiplicity of voices and perspectives in thought and action, in policy and practice, in all spheres of the academic enterprise.  It involves recognizing the value of “difference” and the inclusion of members of groups that experience discrimination or under representations.

Join with us in embracing diversity.

Above all, view your education as an opportunity, as a way of enhancing and fast- forwarding your future success and as a time to enjoy.

Give it your best shot.  We will be your partners.  

I look forward to seeing you on campus.  And please stay in touch.  Welcome again to Hofstra University, Class of 2017. Thanks and continued success.

Monday, September 9, 2013


I’m busy working on my speech to our new first year undergraduate students. I’ve had a chance to talk with many of these students when they were applicants—first as part of junior open houses and next as part of fall open houses (which are geared to seniors) and finally as part of admitted student days. My message at those times is very clear—Hofstra provides an outstanding undergraduate education and here are the reasons why Hofstra is the right choice for you.

The upcoming student speech is both easier and harder. It is easier in that these students have selected Hofstra and they and their families already value what we offer. It is harder in that this is a critical time in the life of these new students and all of us want their college education to best serve their future needs, both personal as well as professional.

Any message to new students must stress the value of the institution. For me, respect for diversity and academic honesty are at the top of the list. In respect for diversity, I think higher education has made significant strides. Not only is the college going population more diverse, students seem much more comfortable with and embracing of diversity. In academic honesty, there is clearly still much work to do. Students come to college often having cheated in middle and high school and are fully conversant in the use of technology to assist in this practice. I especially worry that as the standards for passing tests in middle and high school are ratcheted up substantially, sometimes for no other purpose than to demonstrate higher standards (without first providing a better education), we are increasing the likelihood of cheating. At the very least, we are increasing the likelihood of teaching to the test which also doesn’t foster learning. When these students come to college, we need to both educate them fully as to why academic dishonesty is simply wrong but also make sure the penalty for academic dishonesty is a deterrent to any future dishonesty.

The message to these incoming students needs to be much more than a focus on institutional values. It needs to stress the opportunity that college provides to explore options, try something new, challenge yourself, enjoy yourself, broaden your horizons, and sharpen your career focus. Going to college with blinders on is the wrong view. This is also the time to succeed in managing your time. A student can’t do it all; we simply offer too many alternatives both inside as well as outside of the classroom.

All of these messages need to be delivered briefly, with humor as well as relevance to the students involved. Therein lays the challenge to deliver the important messages while making sure the students are as receptive as possible. We owe it to our students to succeed in doing so.