It’s Been a Tough Week at Work . . .

A friend posted a video of a starving polar bear. I cried. I remembered a friend’s daughter who, when she was about eight, begged her father to take her to see the polar bears before they go extinct. I imagined how the video I had just watched might become one of the things I remember (it seems I forget so many things, but then some things become The Things I Remember, and one never knows at the moment) and thought of Kath Ferris, a character in Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters. The novel was published in 1989, well before the end of the Cold War; Kath is obsessed with the damage that Chernobyl did to the reindeer in Siberia, has a fight with her partner, becomes convinced that there has been a nuclear attack, and runs away from civilization on a boat with her cats, Paul and Linda. The reader eventually comes to understand that she is not in a boat alone in a ruined world but in a mental hospital, where doctors patiently explain to her that her memories of what has happened are not true but are “fabulation,” a key concept Barnes returns to again and again to explain what history is. “The technical term is fabulation,” the doctor tells her in one of her lucid moments in the hospital before her mind returns to the boat. “You make up a story to cover the facts you don’t know or can’t accept. You keep a few true facts and spin a new story round them” (A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters, chapter 4).

I taught Samuel Johnson’s History of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia, for the first time ever this past week. I hadn’t even read it since I enjoyed it as an undergrad, but I wanted to do something different in my 300-level early British literature survey. Since the election of Donald Trump, I feel more urgency about trying to get my students to value, even one iota more than they did before they met me, thinking, analysis, using stories to work out ideas. Johnson, like many of his contemporaries in eighteenth-century England, valorized reason and distrusted “fancy,” to the point of blaming insanity on too much daydreaming:

“In time, some particular train of ideas fixes the attention; all other intellectual gratifications are rejected; the mind, in weariness or leisure, recurs constantly to the favorite conception, and feasts on the luscious falsehood, whenever she is offended with the bitterness of truth. By degrees the reign of fancy is confirmed; she grows first imperious, and in time despotic. Then fictions begin to operate as realities, false opinions fasten upon the mind, and life passes in dreams of rapture or of anguish” (Rasselas, chapter 44).

One of my students, who, I suspect, has a fair amount of experience with ruminations not conducive to peace or happiness, gave a thumbs-up to this explanation of the connection between obsessive thought and madness.

In the same chapter, Johnson’s mouthpiece, Imlac, says, “Perhaps, if we speak with rigorous exactness, no human mind is in its right state.” Years ago, when I gave a ride to a woman who had been jailed overnight for being a nuisance, who had been treated poorly by the other women in the cell, and who had no way back to her car, I came to see that “crazy” is sometimes simply another word for “different.” Mass delusions are OK, but particular delusions are not. More relevant for me, there is a just-right amount of caring about things, a just-right amount of emotion, and if you go beyond that, people might begin to suspect your sanity.

Every semester for the past four semesters, something happens at work that I get my panties in a twist about, vocally and publicly. This past week it was over defending the right of faculty to control the curriculum in a department in which the dissatisfied faculty ultimately decided they would rather not rock the boat. And when people see me after one of these kerfuffles, they’re nervous—I really think they think I’m crazy . . . and if one definition of crazy is “cares too much” or “has stronger emotions than average,” then, well, yeah.

Unfortunately, linking emotionality to craziness is going to catch a lot more women in its definitional net, leading to bad outcomes for women in leadership. A male colleague recently asked a female colleague “Are you going to be polite?” before allowing her to speak in a meeting. My female colleagues are interrupted and undervalued, and it seems to come down to the fact that our emotions are troublesome and seen as out of place in the bastion of reason, academia. (The fact that men are also impolite, also get angry, is no problem.) I take a Xanax once a month, half an hour before the Faculty Senate meeting, because I know that if I sound anxious or emotional, what I say will be discounted. With the Xanax, I can string together a paragraph-long sentence, cool as a cucumber. Without it, I might sound shrill or upset, and then I can feel people thinking, “Why is she so angry?” I’m not angrier than my male colleagues, but I’m angry enough, shrill enough, outspoken enough that I doubt I will ever be allowed to be in an administrative position again at my university.

Over the past few months, I’ve transitioned to veganism, a diet for soft-hearted people that actually does make the heart softer even while making one the object of widespread cultural derision. This world is no place for a soft-hearted person. If 2500 years of the history of philosophy says that the proper proportion of reason to emotion is 95:5, then any amount of emotion above 5% is “too much,” even if it’s well below 50%. I’m in no danger of losing my reason, but the higher I get above that sweet, sweet 5% emotional content, the more people roll their eyes at me, the less seriously my ideas and concerns are taken at work. So it goes.  I don’t think the polar bear will become for me what the reindeer became for Kath Ferris, but I do want to cry for polar bears, pigs, chickens, and the future of higher education in the United States.

Photograph by Paul Nicklen


#MeToo and #IveDoneThat

Trigger warning, obviously.

When I was 16, on a late-night, three-hour-long car ride home from an extracurricular activity, I woke from dozing off to find that my classmate, a boy I had dated briefly a couple of years earlier, had his hand in my pants. The very easiest thing to do was nothing, and that’s what I did.  I pretended to still be asleep.

The following year, a girl I liked came to my house when my parents weren’t home. We watched TV on the couch, snuggled, and kissed a bit. But when I put my hand in her pants, she started murmuring protests. “No, no, I can’t.” She had a boyfriend, and so she couldn’t. She was still kissing me, whispering “no,” and I didn’t stop what I was doing with my hand. Eventually she either came or pretended to.

I’m 46 now – these things happened a long time ago, in a world in which what we now call the “rape scene” in Revenge of the Nerds—the scene where the nerd wears a mask and has sex with his rival’s girlfriend—was funny. It didn’t take me long to be horrified at what I had done to the girl; by 1989 or 1990, I was learning new ideas about sexual consent that brought me to understand that no-while-kissing-is-still-no. I spent years feeling guilty and eventually was able to let go of some of that guilt by confessing to my therapist—but it wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I came to believe that what the boy had done to me in the car was objectively wrong.

It didn’t seem wrong to me at the time because when I became aware of what was happening, I did not choose to stop it. It didn’t seem wrong to me because the princes kiss the unconscious Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and because all children try to stay awake as long as they can at a slumber party—everyone knows that when you’re asleep, people might mess with you. The 2012 Steubenville rape case, with the texts about how you could tell the girl was “dead . . . because someone pissed on her,” highlighted for me how much that mindset still exists, and made me think back to that night in the car.

It also didn’t seem that wrong to me at the time because it didn’t traumatize me. Katie Roiphe initiated a firestorm of rage in 1993 with the blithe comment that “There is a gray area in which one person’s rape may be another’s bad night.” I spent the late 80s and early 90s trying to figure out the gray area—how much weight to give to my own subjective experience versus trying to think and read my way to some kinds of objective standards. Generally, I was more likely to code as “bad night” instead of “assault” things that happened with people I knew—I was 100% more grossed out by the total stranger, maybe 50 years old, who pressed his erection against my ass in a crowd at Montmartre when I was a 15-year-old exchange student in France than I was by what happened the following year in the car, but objectively speaking, putting your hand in the pants of a sleeping girl for several minutes is way more assaulty than that fleeting hard-on was.

I don’t like to think of myself as a victim, but also, having wallowed in lots of self-loathing guilt between the ages of 17 and 21 about how I was a monstrous rapist, I don’t like to think of myself as an evil-doer, either. I think all people have at some point in their lives treated other human beings as objects . . . maybe not for sexual gratification, sure, but there are so, so, so many ways to objectify other humans. We are all guilty of it. Part of my growth over the past decade has been learning to think about myself as a whole person who gets things both right and wrong, instead of wanting to believe that all the bad or stupid or creepy things I have ever done were done in the past, would never happen again, and were somehow the work of an earlier version of me who was now dead and gone forever. I make fewer mistakes now than I did when I was young, and there are some mistakes I will not make again, but I will find new ones to make. Having compassion for myself as a person is the difference between self-loathing and self-acceptance for what happened that night in 1988 on my parents’ couch. I did that. I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.


My Midlife Crisis

I went to the Embassy Theatre last night to hear Joshua Bell perform with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. People who saw my red nose and eyes afterward might have thought that I was just verklempt from hearing one of the greatest living violinists perform. That was a little bit true—he was of course very good—but mostly I was crying because I had a complete mini-midlife crisis during the time it took for Bell to play Leonard Bernstein’s “Serenade after Plato’s Symposium.

I was a classical music geek in high school, specifically a violinist. That was my thing, the way I structured my adolescent personality development project and the reason why, if you mention any pop music that was A Big Fucking Deal in the mid-1980s, I might stare at you blankly: I was entirely too high-minded to listen to pop music, don’t you know? I know I was insufferable, but my love was real—many of my strongest and most valuable memories from my teenage years are musical memories.

With friends from  the Kansas City Youth Symphony, 17 years old

In 1986, Joshua Bell, an 18-year-old violinist in the process of transitioning from child prodigy to professional adult musician, came to perform in Kansas City, my hometown. Of course I went, and of course I read the interview with him in the Kansas City Star in which he said that actually, he hadn’t really gotten serious about playing violin until he was 14. This was a revelation! I was 14! This story, along with his Midwestern upbringing and closeness to my age, put his life into the sphere of possibilities that seemed real.* If I start practicing five hours a day starting now, can I be him in four years?

Well, no. That wasn’t possible, in large part because I never did develop the habit of practicing five hours a day, suggesting that I never did find practicing violin so addictively compelling—or the rewards so desirable—that I would choose to put in the hours it would have taken to make a career of it, whereas I did find scholarly work compelling enough to earn a PhD and become a professor. But even if I had put in the time, I still would never have become Joshua Bell . . . it was never possible. But I knew none of this when I was 14, because the world was nothing but possibilities.

Practicing violin, 16 years old

Before the concert, I told my husband about how my 14-year-old self had translated a desire to be Joshua Bell into a teenage fangirl crush on Joshua Bell. “That was so long ago, thirty-one years ago. Just think—he’s been traveling the world for more than thirty-one years playing violin.” That comment, tethered to the weight of 31 years between then and now, sank down into a lonely place in my soul, and while Bell and the orchestra were performing the Bernstein piece—a musical treatment of the Symposium’s conversation on the nature of love—I couldn’t stop thinking of the big life that I wanted that I didn’t get. It didn’t have to be music—it could have been anything. I just wanted it so big and astonishingly full that it would be Enough.

Like the fool that I am, I tried to reason myself out of it. Would it have helped if I had gone into music as a career? No. I thought about all the thousands of professional violinists in the world, and how those violinists have to deal with the same little petty wounds and resentments that I feel in my life now not at the top of the field that I did choose. I thought about the seven billion people in the world, and how Joshua Bell is in the top ten or twenty of all violinists alive today—seven billion people, and he’s easily in the top ten in his field! Is that enough for him, or does he look at lists like this one or this one and think: Yeah, but I’m no Niccolò Paganini?

I don’t usually think like this, I promise. I appreciate the work of the greats but am mostly content, every day, with my life in the middle. And I’m ashamed to think like this at all, even for a minute, because my life in the middle is so inconceivably much better than the lives of most of the people who have lived through all of human history and likely of most of the people alive in the world today. How can I be so ungrateful? It’s because for a short time in my life, Joshua Bell was a window into a big life, a life that I believed was attainable and that I now know is not attainable.

My 9th-grade school photo, 14 years old

Life knocked it out of me a bit, so much so that at the age of nineteen I renounced ambition, telling myself I wasn’t that special. My life, like everyone’s, has been a series of looking back on my younger selves with embarrassment, and I was heartily embarrassed then to think of how special and talented I had once thought I was. I have since looked back on that 19-year-old self and thought what a waste it was that she had to squash altogether the feeling of being special. Ample evidence suggested I wasn’t anywhere near as special in reality as I thought I was at 14, but couldn’t 19-year-old me have revised her self-concept to “somewhat special” instead of “really not special at all and formerly totally full of herself”? But she was doing the best she could, too.

In the car on the way home, I named it. “I just had a midlife crisis. This is why people buy Porsches and have affairs.” I don’t think I’ll do either. Instead I wrote this essay.

* In 1986, I didn’t have the benefit of Wikipedia. Today, Wikipedia tells me that Bell was already studying with world-renowned violinist and teacher Josef Gingold at the age of twelve, suggesting that either (a) what he meant by “serious” may be different than what I considered “serious” at the age of 14, or (b) 18-year-old Joshua Bell may have been engaging in a little bit of auto-mythography, as 18-year-olds do.

On Untreated Mental Illness and the Health Care Debate

Because of all the news coverage of Republican efforts to kill people, I’ve been thinking a lot about mental health care lately. But that’s not why I impulsively picked up Richard Russo’s Elsewhere: A Memoir at the library—I picked it up and started reading it just because I kind of like Richard Russo. But there it was, a memoir-length reminder of the hell of untreated mental illness, both for the person with the illness and the family and friends—everyone becomes hostage to the illness.


It’s a memoir of his life with his mother, whose mental illness was never diagnosed and never treated. After her death, when his own daughter Kate was diagnosed, Russo was shocked to read the description of a mental illness that matched her symptoms, too late to help her but right on time to feed his own recriminations, his own sense that he could have done more or should have done different. But before that was a lifelong project of coming to understand that something wasn’t quite right with his mother, a problem for the only child of a single mother, because there was no fixed point, nothing for comparison, no way to say, “No, this isn’t normal.” As a child who grew into a young man who grew into a man and then a middle-aged man, there was just . . . living with it, and perhaps the most poignant part of the memoir is the realization that for the first thirty-five years of Russo’s marriage, he and his wife were never alone, but their whole relationship grew and developed to fit the contours of his mother’s needs.

And he spent all that time wondering why she couldn’t just be rational. In a memoir that is as hard on himself as on his mother, he admits that at a certain point, he had stopped hoping for her to change or improve:

At some point along the spectrum of what we like to think of as ‘real time,’ I simply flatlined and, without admitting it to myself, conceded defeat and started just going through the motions. This was why my dreams were haunted. Because I’d given up on someone I loved, someone who’d never, ever, given up on me. I couldn’t speak because the only thing left to say was I’m sorry, and the person I needed to say it to was gone. (205)

And this is, in some ways, a best-case story for untreated mental illness. Here was a woman whose illness was not so severe as to make her a danger to herself or others. Here was a woman whose determination to hold it together sometimes allowed her to hold it together, whose family loved her and wanted to help her, whose son became a famous novelist and thus could provide for her in her old age. But it was exhausting and painful for decades for a whole family. After his daughter’s diagnosis, he read about the disorder:

The language of this book was neither comic nor euphemistic. Here my mother’s “nerves” were anxieties and panic attacks. Nor were such distinctions merely semantic. Crippling anxieties and incapacitating panics (unlike nerves) were serious conditions that demanded treatment. Mental illness, like physical illness, first required diagnosis, then appropriate therapy. Kate had already gotten the first and was embarking on the second. My mother had received neither, and the result had been precisely what the Portland anxiety specialist predicted. She’d gradually been eaten alive. (221)

What is a worst-case story? The story of Terrill Thomas, who died of dehydration in a jail in Milwaukee after prison guards turned off the water to his cell, haunts me. He had bipolar disorder; he was black. If he’d been thirsty, he would have said something, wouldn’t he? But he didn’t, and now he’s dead, and if you think anyone’s going to go to jail for how he was treated, may I just mention #PhilandoCastile, #FreddieGray, #EricGarner, and on and on and on?

When I think about the evil-minded efforts of House and Senate Republicans to kill Obamacare, I think of mental health care, because that’s what is most personal to me. I don’t believe I would be alive, and if I were, my life would suck, but for the fact that my father’s employer, Hallmark Cards, provided top-notch health insurance to him and his family. From summer of 1989 to spring of 1993, four long years, I had a weekly therapy session with a licensed clinical social worker, along with psychiatric consultations and medication as needed. Four years! Four years of weekly therapy! When I think of it, I’m astonished. By the early 1990s, health insurance plans were cutting back on mental health coverage, pushing people to get fixed up with maybe six weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy. Even then, I felt lucky—but now I know the word is “privileged.” Now, with high-deductible plans the norm and somewhere upward of 20 million Americans about to lose their health insurance coverage, mental health care looks more and more like a luxury, something for the privileged few.

We humans are so fragile. Our bodies are fragile, and our minds, souls, personalities are as well. An experience of trauma, a fluke of brain chemistry, an abusive relationship—any or all can cause permanent damage. Russo’s mother, born just before the Depression, grew up in a time when there was no treatment for most of the mental illnesses that cause so much suffering. Now we have treatments—not easy, not automatic, but there are options. But in order to fund tax cuts for people rich beyond the dreams of avarice, we’ll let people die—there are people who, if they had access to my dad’s insurance plan of the late 1980s, could have good lives, like the life I’m grateful for each day. But instead they’ll die, maybe of suicide, maybe of risk-taking, maybe of opioids . . . maybe even of dehydration, because they’re not well enough to ask for the water they need.


W(h)ither Party Politics? Part 2

In the spirit of Martin Amis’s short story “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta,” I will imagine that this morning James T.  Hodgkinson woke up and said to himself, “Today’s the day I’m going to kill those Republicans.”

Fortunately, he failed (I hope; sending best wishes to the shooting victims still in serious or critical condition), but it’s an extremely disturbing moment, another data point of evidence supporting my belief that the most effective metaphor for the relationship between Republicans and Democrats at the present moment is of a toxic marriage between two partners who can never divorce. A few weeks ago, following some outrage that I now can’t even remember, because so many have succeeded it, I noticed an astonishing degree of contempt in the comments written by far-right Republicans on the threads of my Facebook friends and thought of John Gottman’s psychological research on relationships, in which he identified what he calls “the four horsemen” of relationship breakdown: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. All four of them are bad, bad, bad—and I invite you to make your own application to recent events, to find, for example, examples of stonewalling in recent Senate Intelligence Hearings—but in his research Gottman found that behaviors coded as “contempt” were the most important predictor of divorce in the couples he studied.

But Republicans and Democrats can’t get divorced, and I’m sure we’ve all seen how bad things get with the couple who has no fucks left to give about each other’s feelings, health, or well-being. That’s us right now, or our near future. I read a story the other day in Slate about how Americans hoping for a viable third party here should take notes on the recent success of Emmanuel Macron’s party in France. Maybe. I would of course prefer a complete renewal of the entire party system in the United States to a civil war, but I don’t think we’re quite at the point of either of those outcomes yet.

In the meantime, can anything be done to decrease this trend of seeing our political affiliations as constituting group identity in a way that demonizes the other? Is there any end in sight to our tendency to each see ourselves as the Sneetch with the political star on its belly?


Those of you who have followed this blog from its beginning know that I set out to chronicle my efforts to get involved with my local Democratic Party. But I soon discovered that attending the local party’s meetings and events put me in the awkward position of becoming very slightly acquainted with actual people, slightly enough acquainted to be aware that I did not have the standing to criticize or to try to lead change. So when I had doubts about where I could possibly fit into the organization, or concerns about the local party’s ability to hold on to the enormous number of people like me who showed up in a panic after November 9 hoping to do something, it felt churlish to write about my ambivalent feelings about the local party on the blog, so I was silent for a few months and then wrote about other things.

All along, though, I was still participating in the party, but with a lot of uncertainty.  I didn’t connect with party connections on social media, because I wasn’t 100% sure that I was going to stick around. And then I finally did find a group that felt like a good fit, a new group, the Allen County Stonewall Democrats, that had a better meeting schedule for me than the women’s group I had tried and that, because it is a new organization, is being created in real time, rather than having a long history that limits the possibilities for change. I volunteered to be part of the planning committee for the Fort Wayne Equality March; not surprisingly, working together on a project accomplished more than attending meetings had to help me to connect with individual people, and after the march was over, I didn’t feel ambivalent any more about the local party. So I friended a bunch of people on Facebook, because even though the Allen County Democratic Party is not perfect, I’m going to stick around.

And ironically, this is what I believe is the antidote to political Sneetch-ism: actual involvement in political work. The work of local political parties is not particularly fun or glamorous, and it is in no way as emotionally satisfying as I suspect that name-calling in anonymous Internet comments must be for the people who like to do that. It’s knocking on doors, asking for money, calling people, explaining party positions, listening to people’s concerns, going to parades to get signatures and register people to vote, driving people to the polls, volunteering in the days leading up to and on Election Day, going to meetings, planning and organizing, trying to improve systems for data and finances, learning the rules in order to follow them, etc., etc., etc. Without the countless volunteers who do these necessary but unglamorous jobs, year after year after year, we would have no democracy at all.

Political actions > political opinions >> political violence. Spread the word.

Part 1 here

From Me to the LGBTQ+ Community, With Love

My speech at the Fort Wayne Equality March, Sunday, June 11, 2017:

You’ve heard a lot of people talking today about equality and inclusion, asking for dignity and respect from Republican politicians. I’m here with a challenge for the community of people listening to me, asking you to keep making the LGBTQ+ community always more inclusive, because if being queer means being who you truly are, with support and acceptance from the people around you, then everyone should be queer.

In 1988, when I was 17 years old, I came out as a lesbian and experienced for about a year the welcome of the Kansas City gay scene. Then I realized that “bisexual” was more accurate—if the year hadn’t been 1989, I would have had words like “pansexual” or “queer” to describe a diffuse sexual orientation, but I used the word I had—and suddenly the welcome became quite a bit cooler, and remained so. Eventually I gave up on participating in the LGBTQ+ community.

I have made my way back to the community over the past several years because this is my tribe. During the time I was gone, trans activists have done so much to push things in the direction of inclusivity in the LGBTQ+ community in a way that I, with my internalized feeling that I didn’t really belong anyway, couldn’t have done. But transgender people spoke up and said, “Hey, you’re not representing me” or “Hey, that was transphobic” or “Hey, we have some additional issues that you L and G people haven’t thought of.” Thank you for this work, my trans and gender-queer comrades—you’ve made it easier for me to feel I belong here, too.

By pushing against the binary model of gender, these trans activists have complicated the previously tidy binaries of sexual orientation as well: a lesbian whose partner transitions from female to male: can she still be queer? A person who gets involved with a non-binary-gendered person: what’s the word for that orientation? The complicated Venn diagrams that result from queering the sexual orientation binary by exploding the gender binary have resulted in a proliferation of initials for what used to be the LGB movement and then became the LGBT movement. And with this expansion of identity categories came the snowflake insult—starting several years before the alt-right began overusing the word as an insult for any liberal or Democrat, the word was used to mock people whose sexual or gender identity was deemed too specific, too unique.

But we could all own it, couldn’t we, just as we turned the word “queer” from an insult into an identity category? Every person who becomes part of the LGBTQ+ community has fought a battle, either internal, external, or both, to live their lives in the world in a way that reflects the reality of their hearts. We are all snowflakes: unique, beautiful, fragile. When our political opponents insult us with the word “snowflake,” they aren’t just talking to us but to their own children as well, and they are expressing a clear set of values: (1) Being like everyone else is mandatory. (2) Being sensitive or fragile is weakness and will not be tolerated.


Those of us who have struggled to discover who we truly are and to live that openly in the world, who have become toughened by adversity but not so tough that we have lost our fragility and ability to feel—have a different message: Please join us, whoever you are. We will welcome you.

At the end of the fight, in 50 years or 100 years or maybe in 10 years, when LGBTQ+ people will have won every legal battle and the social battles as well—when that day comes, and historians look back on the progress of the movement, they will see a steady march toward both more embrace of uniqueness and an ever-greater inclusion of difference . . . and that won’t seem strange to them at all, because they will see with hindsight that our movement all along was about letting individuals be who they are with the support of a community.

In the meantime, we can move toward that future every day by finding the common ground that connects us, each of us finding ways to fight for each other’s rights, trusting that those others will turn around and fight for mine.

Is there room in the movement for both the two men who want a monogamous marriage, white picket fence, 2.5 children and a dog and for me, the queer lady in her nonmonogamous marriage with a man? Is there room in the movement for people at the far ends of the gender spectrum and for those in the middle, or whose gender expression shifts fluidly? Is there room for the straight cis-gendered guy who was bullied as a kid because he loved art and musical theater and wants to make the world a better place for his future children? If we want to change the world, the answer had better be yes.

I read last night that Ice Cube chided Bill Maher for his use of a racial slur, saying, “That’s our word now, and you can’t have it back.” Words have power, and I want to own “snowflake.” We are all of us snowflakes if we have the courage to be, and however beautiful and fragile snowflakes are, if they join together into a snowball, they can pack one hell of a wallop to a big ugly orange toupee!

Video here.


Kaplan Cheats Veterans and Uses Veterans to Cheat the Government

The reason I started blogging about the Purdue-Kaplan deal is that it’s so confusing. When I first learned about it, it’s like my brain just said, “Huh? . . . Better think about something else now.” So when I took the time to understand the contradictions that had initially fogged my brain—public but not state? for-profit but not? what?—I wanted to help other people who share my interests and values understand what makes this deal such a massive blunder.

Along the way, I made mistakes—hey, I said it was confusing. I initially believed that Graham Holdings, the parent company of Kaplan University, wanted to unload an unprofitable part of their business. And though I corrected that error in the blog, it is immortalized here in a newspaper column based on the blog. But no. The online university that peddles worthless degrees is highly profitable: a U.S. Senate investigation determined that Kaplan allocated 13.5 percent of its total revenue ($212.1 million) to profit. If the merger goes through, the remaining for-profit entity that will retain the name “Kaplan” will receive 12.5 percent of revenue after costs, a much smaller amount of money, because it will be calculated after subtracting costs. The remaining profit (because that’s the correct English language word for the money that remains from revenue after costs have been subtracted, despite Mitch Daniels’s efforts to create entirely new meanings for words) will go to “New University” and its parent, Purdue University. This is the “very substantial revenue stream” that Daniels has been talking about.

So when I learned that Kaplan is actually highly profitable, I found out more about the regulatory mechanisms in place for for-profit universities that do not apply to non-profit institutions, and here I made another mistake. The 90/10 rule for for-profit institutions caps at 90 percent the amount of federal money from Title IV aid that such a school can receive. The remaining 10 percent must come from other sources. So I looked at the data and wrote:

If we look specifically at the percentage of revenue that Kaplan receives from federal sources, they were within the 90/10 rule for the most recent year for which data are available (81% of revenues from federal sources).

But I was wrong there, too. For that year (2014-2015), Kaplan received 81 percent of its revenues from Title IV aid. But because of the “90-10 loophole,” a significant proportion of the remaining 19 percent of revenues also came from federal sources in the form of GI Bill benefits.  In brief, because veterans’ benefits such as the GI Bill are not specifically mentioned in the 90-10 law, for-profit universities classify that money as “other” and count it in the 10 percent of non–Title IV funds. What this means, in the words of Carrie Wofford, president of Veterans Education Success, is that “for every dollar of GI Bill they pull in, they can pull in $9 more dollars of Title IV funds from the Education Dept.”

So they target veterans aggressively, using “pain-based” recruiting techniques  and dogged persistence. Veteran Daniel Elkins told NPR that he registered with a veterans’ education site and was deluged by recruiters: “Within three to four days, I got in the excess of 70 phone calls and … well over 300 emails.”

How do they do this? Well, they pay for it. The U.S. Senate investigation found that Kaplan University

  • Allocated . . . 23.7% ($372.7 million) [of its revenue] to marketing and recruiting in 2009
  • Spent more per student on recruiting ($2,144) than on instruction ($1,550) in 2009 and $1,220 per student on profit; spending on instruction was less than half the maximum expenditure ($3,969) of the publicly-traded companies examined

They don’t stop calling until the veteran signs up.

So OK, if only 81 percent of their revenues comes from Title IV federal funds, how much of the rest also comes from the federal government in the form of GI Bill benefits? Mother Jones reported in 2011 that Kaplan’s military revenues were $48.9 million in 2010. This means, according to that same Senate report, that 87.9 percent of revenues ($1.5 billion) in 2010 came from the federal government in the form of federal student aid plus military/veterans benefits. Federal dollars are taxpayer dollars; Mitch Daniels knows this, and he also knows that saying that the New University will be supported by “tuition and fundraising,” not state funds, obfuscates the fact that Kaplan fleeced the federal government of $1.5 billion in 2010 and a similar proportion of its revenues up to the present.

So here I am, a person with a PhD whose livelihood depends upon reading and analyzing stories and texts, teaching others to do the same, and having a stellar grasp of the English language. I wanted to write about how damned confusing this thing has been for me to make the point that something this confusing is actually designed to deceive. Mitch Daniels has said a lot of pretty things about expanding educational access and the land-grant mission of Purdue University, but this is about money.

If the Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is So Bad, How Can We Stop It? Part 2

The title feels a bit disingenuous, because I’m going to write about the other two entities that will have to sign off on the Purdue-Kaplan deal, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education (ICHE) and the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), and neither of these is likely to be part of stopping this deal from going forward. Here’s why:

Three parts of ICHE’s extensive charge to oversee higher education in Indiana give them a say in the decision:

  • Define the educational missions of public colleges and universities;
  • Plan and to coordinate Indiana’s state-supported system of post-high school education, taking into account the plans and interests of independent colleges and universities;
  • Approve or disapprove for public institutions the establishment of any new branches, campuses, extension centers, colleges or schools;

This deal is definitely their bailiwick, but remember how I mentioned that it was Mitch Daniels’s appointees on the Purdue Board of Trustees who appointed him, despite lack of academic experience, to be president of Purdue? Well, guess who appoints the members of ICHE. The governor. And the governor of Indiana has been Republican since January 10, 2005, when Daniels was inaugurated. Of the twelve members of the commission (there are currently two vacant seats), only two were appointed by Democratic governors. I seriously doubt that Daniels moved forward with this deal without a fair amount of certainty that the ICHE commissioners have his back.

And Daniels also has a few friends in high places, such that he might have an even stronger belief than I do (and my belief is very, very strong) that Trump’s DOE under Betsy DeVos will not stand in the way of the deal in the way that Obama’s DOE did for previous deals. DeVos is all about giving public money to for-profit companies in the name of school choice (and also to further “God’s Kingdom”). Essentially, the Purdue-Kaplan “New University” will meet the definition of a charter school—public money used to pay for a privately run school (I have not heard anything defining New University’s “publicness” in a way that jibes with my understanding of the concept, and the profits being funneled to Kaplan for 30 years makes me reject the idea that this will be a “public” university, because it will benefit a for-profit company)—and DeVos will likely be eager to extend the charter school model to higher education.

For those who argue that this won’t really be like a charter school, the claim that “tuition and fundraising” will pay all the costs of New University is deceptive, because it implies that taxpayer dollars won’t be supporting the school. This is entirely false. Indeed, the whole reason that so many for-profit universities want to convert to non-profit schools is not because they have decided they don’t want money anymore. It’s because they no longer want to be bound by the regulations that, among other things, restrict for-profit universities to receiving no more than 90% of their revenue from federal grant, loan, and work-study programs. Non-profit universities are not regulated so closely, largely because they do not have the same incentive to screw people over for their money.

If we look specifically at the percentage of revenue that Kaplan receives from federal sources, they were within the 90/10 rule for the most recent year for which data are available (81% of revenues from federal sources). Importantly, though, the numbers help to give a sense of the scale of this deal (and why Mitch Daniels wants it, and why Kaplan might think that 12.5% of profits will be plenty of money to skim off the top. In the 2014-2015 academic year, Kaplan University received $585,678,387 from Title IV (i.e., federal taxpayer-funded) sources, out of a total revenue stream of $720,264,155. In the same year, Purdue University’s overall revenue was $1,471,803,000 (see p. 14 here). There’s money to be made here.

So basically, if the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) doesn’t stop this deal, I don’t think we can hope that ICHE or the DOE will. Probably the best hope now, when outrage and concern are high, and long before the HLC’s deadline of April 2018, is to focus on calling this deal what it is—a use of public money to support a for-profit business, a move that will lead to decreased standards for higher education in Indiana and lower educational attainment for our students. Maybe the bad PR and noisy public shaming of Mitch Daniels can drown out the sweet siren song of All. That. Money.

Also see The Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is Bad for Everyone (Spoiler: It’s Not Bad for Absolutely Everyone!)

The Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is Bad for Indiana

If the Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is So Bad, How Can We Stop It? Part 1

If the Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is So Bad, How Can We Stop It? Part 1

Well, kids, it looks like another #resistance moment is upon us, and since no one is exhausted yet from all the other #resistance moments we’ve encountered in the past 102 days, and since we’re dealing with rational people with good and loving hearts instead of narcissists and ideologues, this should be a piece of cake, right?

Haha, I jest.

But for what it’s worth, the deal is not a done deal; from the SEC filing:

Consummation of the transactions contemplated by the Transfer Agreement, if entered into, would be subject to various closing conditions, including, among others, regulatory approvals from the U.S. Department of Education, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education and HLC, which is the regional accreditor of both Purdue and Kaplan University, and certain other state educational agencies and accreditors of programs.  Kaplan is unable to predict with certainty when and if such approvals will be obtained; however, it expects that all approvals will not be received until the fourth quarter of 2017.  If the transaction is not consummated by April 30, 2018, either party may terminate the Transfer Agreement.

You can learn more about ways the deal can be terminated in section 9 of the Contribution and Transfer Agreement (CTA), but basically, in terms of where to #resist, the people in charge of education have to agree. I will devote a blog post to each of these three entities that must support the Purdue-Kaplan deal, starting today with the Higher Learning Commission.

HLC, the Higher Learning Commission: This is the accrediting body for both Purdue and the current Kaplan University, which might make it seem unlikely that HLC would interfere with the deal, but just last year, this body blocked Grand Canyon University’s bid to convert from a for-profit to a non-profit university. HLC said that part of their rationale for blocking the GCU deal was that their requirements “do not allow for an institution to outsource all or the majority of its basic functions related to academic and student support services and curriculum development, even where the contract between the parties indicates that the accredited institution provides oversight of those services.” My reading of the Purdue-Kaplan deal documentation suggests that they are attempting to do something similar to what HLC has already objected to:

From the CTA: “NewU to acquire the accredited, Title IV-participating, post-secondary ED Institution known as “Kaplan University” and its institutional assets and operations for the purpose of delivering a broad range of educational offerings in support of the efforts of Purdue.”

SEC filing: “Under the TOSA, Kaplan will provide operations support activities to New University including, but not limited to, technology support, help-desk functions, human resources support for transferred faculty and employees, admissions support, financial aid administration, marketing and advertising, back-office business functions, international student recruiting and certain test preparation services.”

This is confusing, because of the fact that “Kaplan” and “Kaplan University” are distinct entities. “Kaplan” is the continuing for-profit business that will continue to run the Kaplan test-prep services and the Kaplan University School of Professional and Continuing Education (KU-PACE), an educational arm of the business that is still profitable and thus isn’t part of the deal with Purdue. “Kaplan University” is the seven schools and colleges that now comprise Kaplan University (not including KU-PACE) that will become New University.

So the “Kaplan” that will “provide operations support activities” is the continuing for-profit business, not New U, which will become, in the words of the HLC’s objection to the GCU deal, “the accredited institution [that] provides oversight of those services.” And just having the accredited, non-profit institution overseeing the support work of a for-profit company wasn’t good enough for the HLC a year ago. I’m sure that the lawyers for Purdue and Kaplan are very sympathetic with Grand Canyon’s take on the HLC decision; certainly they have tried to distinguish their deal from the GCU case, but the fundamental problem that HLC objected to is still part of the Purdue-Kaplan deal.

Also see The Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is Bad for Everyone (Spoiler: It’s Not Bad for Absolutely Everyone!)

The Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is Bad for Indiana

If the Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is So Bad, How Can We Stop It? Part 2

The Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is Bad for Indiana

Yesterday’s post aimed to convince readers that everyone in the United States (nay, in the English-speaking world!) should be concerned about Purdue’s recent deal with Kaplan University. In today’s post, I will get into some of the nitty-gritty of Indiana’s higher education goals and policies in order to convince Hoosier readers that the Purdue-Kaplan deal is a bad choice for reaching Indiana’s stated higher ed goals.

The Big Goal: Indiana has set the goal that by 2025, 60 percent of the state’s adult population will have a two- or four-year college degree. In 2010, only 38.3 percent of working-age adults had attained these credentials. A Lumina Foundation report on Indiana noted in 2012 that “If the current rate of degree production continues, about 41 percent of Indiana’s adult population—1.3 million people—will hold a college degree by 2025. To reach 60 percent, Indiana will need to add nearly 633,000 degrees to that total.”

The state has made a number of decisions aimed at increasing the number of college graduates in the state:

Core Transfer Library: In 2005, the General Assembly created the “Indiana Core Transfer Library” to make it easier for students to receive full credit for previous college work when they transfer to a new institution in the state. This program creates a list of courses in 88 categories at public institutions in Indiana; links courses with the same content and learning outcomes so that it’s easy to see what are essentially the same courses, despite different course names and numbers; and obligates other institutions to transfer in the courses that correspond to their own courses in the transfer library.

Dual credit for high school students: Indiana law requires high schools to offer a minimum of two dual-credit courses, that is, courses for which high school students receive both credit toward their high school diploma and college credit. The statute governing the dual-credit system in the state (see IC 21-43-5-7) clarifies that courses may be offered by “(1) onsite instruction; (2) telecommunication; or (3) a combination of methods described in subdivisions (1) and (2).”

Statewide General Education Transfer: In 2012, the Indiana legislature passed a law to create a statewide General Education core, such that “After May 15, 2013, a student who satisfactorily completes the requirements of the Statewide General Education Core in an Indiana state educational institution and then subsequently transfers to another Indiana state educational institution will not be required to complete the Statewide Transfer General Education Core requirements at the institution to which the student transfers.”

Now let’s think about these Indiana policies with reference to the Purdue-Kaplan deal:

  1. Since this will be a “public” Indiana institution (whatever that means, given that state funds will not be appropriated to pay for the costs of New University), its courses will be included in the Indiana Core Transfer Library.
  2. Students who complete the General Education core online through the New University can transfer those credits to any Indiana university to complete their education (and possibly receive a diploma with a name other than “Purdue” on it).
  3. High schools in rural areas that are required by law to offer at least two dual-credit courses will find a fully online program that offers credits with the still-valuable-for-now name of “Purdue” to be much easier than the current system, which involves teacher certification and oversight from university faculty, who often have to drive significant distances to provide this supervision. Homeschoolers and charter schools, which have no particular stake in supporting truly public education, will also likely flock to New University offerings as a way of getting a head start on college.

Indiana universities can thus expect the arrival on their campuses of a large number of students who have already completed their General Education core through New University and think that they are ready for upper-level college work. Guess what! They won’t be ready, because Kaplan’s courses are currently taught (and will continue to be taught under New University) by an army of underpaid, untenured, sometimes inadequately credentialed instructors with high workloads and no job security. This is not an education model that will teach students how to think, question, and explore ideas, which is what they should be getting from their General Education experience. With these students, professors in upper-level classes will have to either (1) dumb down the material to be what they previously would have taught as freshman or sophomore-level material or (2) flunk lots and lots of students, which gives the university a black eye, leads to students leaving college with significant debt and no degree, and can lead to loss of funding because of the performance-based funding metrics instituted in Indiana in 2012. The Purdue-Kaplan deal is bad for Indiana.

To bring it back to readers in other states, pay attention! Just as Kansas shows us the worst path possible for “tax reform,” Indiana has been the crucible for the development and implementation of neoliberal education policies for a decade. With Betsy DeVos in the White House, expect other states to follow Indiana’s lead in dumbing down higher education by deals such as the Purdue-Kaplan merger in order to be able to brag about the percentage of citizens with college credentials.

Also see The Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is Bad for Everyone (Spoiler: It’s Not Bad for Absolutely Everyone!)

If the Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is So Bad, How Can We Stop It? Part 1

If the Purdue-Kaplan Deal Is So Bad, How Can We Stop It? Part 2