Alaska is Destroying Its University System

Primary blame lies with the governor, but the legislature has failed:

The impasse over the Alaska system’s budget isn’t over yet. But on Friday the university officially lost 41 percent of its state funding in one fell swoop, as lawmakers failed to override Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s big cut to the system. Legislators in both the House and the Senate adjourned until next Wednesday, well past the Friday-night deadline for overriding Dunleavy’s line-item vetoes of the state budget.

Let me note that this is completely bonkers. Even if there were a case for shrinking the system in a variety of ways (but to half its size?!), there’s almost no more damaging ways than a fast, brutal slash:

Across the system, no one is hiring, no one is traveling, and no one is buying anything, unless it’s absolutely necessary. Officials are scrubbing any organizational memberships that cost money. About 2,500 staff members have been sent furlough notices, requiring them to take 10 unpaid days off during the year.

This is not forced on the state at all, it’s purely a political decision by the governor using a line item veto.

Which just shows how fucking stupid line item veto are esp with a challenging override mechanism.

I loved this bit of the budget memo (which really is bonkers):

While the University has consistently claimed that the Governor’s proposed budget would require it to close an entire campus, that is not at all clear. For instance, the University could consolidate its two engineering schools into one school in Fairbanks. It could consolidate its arts and sciences programs into one school in Anchorage. It could consolidate its business management programs into one school in Anchorage. And so on. Location disruption for students can be mitigated by live-streaming classes.

AND SO ON?!?!?! Well that’s a well thought out blueprint. Things aren’t clear but instead of working out a plan, let’s slash and pretend things will work out!


One thing that really pissed me off is that I’m on board with complaining about top heavy administration…but it’s very unclear that this will fix that. It’s not like consolidation is needed to cut overpaid administrators! I mean, the redundancy isn’t the core problem!

Universities beware! High priced administrators will not save you and, indeed, will be used as a stick to beat you. Rebalance on your own terms.

Some Good Things

We had an 89.2% response rate for the PRES! We were number 1 across the university and smoked Maths (at 81.2%). I’m really happy about that! No one else really cares 🙂

I hope the data are useful. Obviously, the best out come is that everything’s great. The alternative is that our students are experiencing problems! But any which way it will be good to know.

I’m moving on to the next task which probably is revamping the employability support for PGR students.

The other good thing this week was that I got official notice of an award!

Dear Bijan

I’m delighted to inform you that you are the winner of the Manchester Doctoral College Supervisor of the Year Award 2019 (Faculty of Science and Engineering)

The Supervisor of the Year Award recognises an individual who has created the most supportive, stimulating and inspirational research environment for doctoral students.

I can’t tell you how much this delights me at a fundamental level. I really enjoy teaching of all kinds but PhD supervision has a special place for me. I’ve seen some really joyful transformations as students first approach, then understand, then enact research. I spent a long time as a PhD student and a lot of what we do as academics is closely related to what PhDs do.

I give it my all but that doesn’t always work. That my students would put me forth for this makes me hope that I’m doing something right.

2013-2014 Sabbatical Goals

So! Today is the first (business) day of my first ever sabbatical! This is what I’ve been waiting for!!! My whole academic career to date can be thought of as trying to get a sabbatical! And it’s here! Yay!

Of course, a sabbatical is not a vacation (alas). Instead, they are opportunities to pursue activities that require sustained focus or displacement which significantly advance some aspect of our academic career. Writing a book is the canonical example, esp. if it requires (or benefits from) research at a remote site. Obviously, it’s possible to write books while also carrying a normal teaching and admin load, but for many people such schedules are nearly prohibitive.

Here are some (most?) of my key sabbatical goals. We can divide these into two sorts: Recurrent and non-recurrent activities. The former are stable patterns of behaviour I hope to cultivate that are intended to carry on after the sabbatical. The latter are accomplishments that may have effects afterwards but are performed primarily during the year.

Non-recurrent activities

  1. The key goal (and the reason I’m visiting Siemens) is to establish myself as an internationally leading clinical informatics researcher. I’m already in a pretty good position to do this given my expertise in ontologies and ontology engineering, but getting the clinically specific aspects is a big chunk of work. This involves some education (i.e., becoming better read about clinical informatics per se, gaining some comfort with clinical terminology and scenarios, etc.), some research (i.e., figuring out a research programme and laying the groundwork for executing it), and some schmoozing (i.e., learning who the key players are and trying to meet up with them). My stretch goal is that within 5 years I’m a reasonable candidate to be elected an AMIA Fellow.
  2. Give my courses a thorough working over with an eye to making a) executing them less difficult for me, b)  innovation easier, and c)  them more pedagogically effective.
  3. Develop two new MSc programs: software engineering practicum and computing eduction. The latter seems to be happening anyway. The first is something near and dear to my heart.
  4. Brush up my statistics.
  5. Finish some software I’ve left languish (in particular, the Jewel Syntax based OWL Paste Bin; some exam software).
  6. Resolve the book issue.
  7. Publish some sort of philosophy.
  8. Complete a novel.

Recurrent activities

  1. Blog at least once a week. Small stretch goal is 3 times a week. Large stretch goal is 5x a week.
  2. Submit an average of 1 journal paper a month. (I expect this will drop to 1 every other month in normal times).
  3. Submit an average of 1 grant proposal every 2 months. (I expect I’ll dance a happy dance if I get 4 out this year and sustain 2 a year.)
  4. Read an average of 1 paper a day, with notes.
  5. Read one non-escapy (fiction or non-fiction) book a week.
  6. Exercise 4 times a week reaching to every day.
  7. Work on the OWLED community group every week.

So not everything is strictly academic!

UK Student Fees Still A Bad Idea

A this year resolution is to blog more and blog effectively. But I’m counting the Iranian New Year as the start date, so I’ve begun over a month early.

It was a huge mistake for Labour to have opened the door in the first place (not to mention the scandalous misappropriation that ensued), but it’s an even bigger mistake to lift the cap. We can just look at the US model to see that universities in markets are really bad at holding down costs in any way (US tuition has risen faster than inflation for decades).

I suspect that it won’t affect the core of the applicant pool immediately. While this Guardian article has the alarming headling, “UK university applications in ‘steepest fall for 30 years'”, buried toward the bottom it acknowledges:

The fall has been partly blamed on the fee hike, but is also thought to be due to a glut of applications in 2010 in anticipation of the fees rise. Demographic factors could also be behind the slump. The number of 18-year-olds in the UK is projected to decline over the rest of the decade by 11%.

So, it’s the biggest fall, but we had a big bulge last year. Hmmm.

We’re still rejecting a lot  (140,000…and university places have been slashed), so if the fees are “merely” scaring off students that wouldn’t have gotten in anyway, it’s hard to argue that the fees induced a problem in the applicant pool per se.

I think the biggest problem is the huge amount of distortion it introduces into people’s lives. Debt brings anxiety (even debt governed by liberal forgiveness and repayment policies). New parents will start thinking about “college funds”. Applicants will focus even more narrowly on their job prospects and be less willing to take risks in their education or simply go elsewhere. Graduates will be loathe to take on more risk and perhaps will even have trouble securing useful debt (mortgages, small business loans, etc.). Generations will be divided and later ones will be more hostile to reversing fees or any similar sort of generosity.

(It’s really like health care. I mostly had reasonable health insurance when I lived in the States (except for a few scary moments; Zoe and I married in part to get her on my UMCP policy), and it was still awful. Every doctors trip was a PITA and a drain. I’d get scary bill looking notices from the insurance company that turned out to be NOT A BILL. I had an ambulance ride charged to me when I was a student that I had a lot of trouble paying off. Etc. Etc. Etc. And I had a mostly good experience!)

This isn’t healthy. Perhaps it would be worth it if it brought about more educational efficiency and held down costs, but that’s really unlikely. A highly educated populace is generally acknowledged to be valuable. We should invest in it.