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Aug 26, 2019

First day of classes: A big secret revealed

On the first day of classes, I always look for an excuse to walk around the campus. This morning, I went to the Library to return a couple of books (yes, i do read physical books), then took a tour of the new gorgeous Science Building, got my Starbucks latte from the Union building, walked through Brighton and Eureka buildings, went to see Lorenzo, the Engineering and Computer Sciences dean… Any excuse will do. This is the first day of classes, so the students are back on campus; all serious, armed with best intentions, with their cellphones in hand for comfort, their bottles and mugs, backpacks and skateboards, their dreams and anxieties. All the problems have been shoved aside, for here it is, the first day of classes. I can see students making the new spaces homey, nesting in chairs or benches, reckoning if one can become a favorite spot, showing their back-to-school clothes and haircuts, hoping to meet old friends and make new ones. I saw the tents of student societies – the Accounting club, the pre-PT club, the Civil Engineering Student Chapter – all seeking to connect, to invite to one of many tribes. I see the eternal gray-haired gentleman on a beach chair with his “Does God really love you?” poster. No one ever stops to chat, but he’s got his question in.

For those of you non-university types, here is the secret: This is how we charge our batteries. Just like vampires who need a fix of fresh human blood, we need our energy shot from students. The real connoisseurs know that the student life force is best to partake in the first couple of days of classes: it is pure, abundant, and accessible. All you have to do is walk around any campus you can get to. It is the same anywhere in the world, in Siberia, California, Ohio, Colorado, Moscow, or Rhode Island. The life force is free, and you cannot OD on it. Happy new school year!

Aug 19, 2019

Beware of good ideas

Where something looks like a great idea, turn on your critical brain. If something instantly looks good, there is a good chance no one had thought it through. It is tempting to say “let’s do it!” However, “it” may be outside of your organization’s priorities. A good idea in general, it may not fit into your mission. It may not be likely to achieve whatever objectives you are thinking it may achieve. It may be too expensive to do, or you may not have enough resources to do it well. There may be not enough support among the people you want to do it for. A problem may be intractable. The status quo, however bad, may be the same as whichever new thing you want to introduce. Every one probably has that experience when you ask later: “Why did we think it was a good idea?” To the extent possible, I want to avoid being in that situation.

We just finished a planning parathion, a series of meetings with slightly different groups of people on priority projects for this coming year. In at least two instances we killed projects, and in many others, we reduced our commitments. In a nerdy way, we even planned the planning meeting, just to make sure they don’t start from zero. Then we asked ourselves three questions – Why are going to do this? What are we going to do it? And, - How are we going to do it?

Planning is really an exercise in a collective imagining. I enjoy planning, because you get to play out scenarios, imagine how things would and would not work, what good can happen, and how things may go wrong. It is a truly creative activity, akin to brainstorming, or screenplay writing. You get to live in parallel universes, slightly different from the one you are actually in. The exercise allows us to see the possibilities and the limits of our organization, and often result in unexpected solutions. For example, we have been struggling with event support: sometimes staff and the Dean’s office do not know what is going on, and sometimes someone has to put out the last minute fires. So, we decided to put together a universal and simple request for support form. Well, that was not an intent of the meeting at all. Yet planning is thinking about the organization, and it sheds lights on its inefficiencies just because we got together to talk.

School year planning is also a seasonal mark for me. Faculty will update their syllabi, re-build their Canvas shells, check out their classrooms, and sharpen their quills. We, administrators, plan the year, marvel at our budgets, look at neat rows of numbers, and pretend to understand what we are doing. Of course, we know, that half the work will be unexpected, something will come up to eat our time. Yet we try to make the other half as predictable as possible. It was said many times that educators are like farmers; their world governed by the predictability of seasons and unpredictability of weather. There will be a new semester, whether we feel ready or not. What will it bring – is always a bit of a surprise, which makes life interesting and worth living.

Aug 10, 2019

What is going on in Moscow and why you should care?

We will never know if Russian troll factories put Trump in office. Given the narrow margins in a number of states, it is entirely possible. However, besides direct interference, there exists the “Dirty International” of right-wing populists around the globe. Even though some of them may be in conflict with each other, Trump needs Putin, both need Erdogan and Modi. These people need each other to open up the possibility of the new world, free from tolerance and moral constraints. All of them share the disdain for democratic institutions. Just as the rise of Fascism in 1920s and 1930s was a European phenomenon, the nationalist wave of the early 21 century is a global phenomenon.

Muscovites started to protest when none of the opposition candidates was allowed to run in the city council’s elections. The last three Saturdays saw massive rallies. The last one on August 10 had 50-60 thousand people. The police and militarized police had a level of brutality, unusual even for Russia. Thousands of people were arrested, and the authorities charged several people for inciting riots. The awkward thing is, there were no riots. Not one car was torched, not one store window smashed, not one policeman injured. On July 27, one person threw a light plastic trash bin at a policeman and missed. Another guy had a hammer and a knife in his backpack; he never took them out. Yet a third one threw a small plastic water bottle at a policeman. That is all the authorities could come up with, and they are charging people with organizing a riot. The whole situation is Kafkaesque in its absurdity.

However, it is important to point out that Putin did not start with the violence; he started with lies. Populism destroys democracy by exploiting the worst instincts of the people. Putin used xenophobia, homophobia, and fantasies of greatness to create a large following. He was able to exploit the tremendous economic pain Russians experienced thorough 1990s, and turn it into the narrative of victimhood. Trump did the same thing by telling how other countries, intelletuals, and immigrants have been taking advantage of working Americans. The playbook goes back to Adolf Hitler, and the story of German people as a victim of the global Jewish conspiracy. Of course, the simplest recipe for preventing the Right-wing populism is to avoid massive economic declines. Indeed, countries that were able to build strong social safety nets seem to be immune to the disease. Countries without strong social protections are not.

What people in Moscow are doing is a part of the same fight against the same enemy. If Americans manage to beat it down, it will keep in check all the strongmen around the world. If Russians win back their democratic rights, it will weaken trumpism here. The fight is global, and the stakes are high.

Aug 2, 2019

Winter is coming, and Trump is the Night King

Game of Thrones has a terrifying scene, where the Night King raises hundreds of dead bodies to join his Army of the Dead. Jon Snow watches his slaughtered friends open their eyes filled with eerie blue light. I get the metaphor now. A similar creepy feeling comes to me when I watch the latest Trump rally. I can see well-meaning, decent people, your neighbors, colleagues and family animated by some weird magic, embracing xenophobia and the foolish fantasy of greatness.

Unlike many of my friends, I was dismissive of Trumps danger when he was elected. After all, American democracy was designed with someone like Trump in mind. The institutions will hold, I said to my friends. Now I am not so sure. I missed - and some are still missing – the Movement behind the cartoonish figure of Trump. The movement has quickly from the shadow of its leader, and it is much more terrifying than Trump. The ease and speed with which the Movement has destroyed the Grand Old Party is astonishing. A political party is a democracy in miniature, with its own institutions, checks and balances, its norms and procedures. Yet we see distinguished senators and representatives who are terrified, silent, and cowed, some with a blue tinge to their eyes. We see a party that abandoned its cherished values such as fiscal responsibility, global free trade, and confronting authoritarians around the world. In other words, we see that the Movement can and will destroy democratic institutions, given an opportunity. Neither Trump, nor his supporters have ever expressed any concern for democratic institutions. All the signs point to the opposite direction.

The strength of the movement is in its seductive promise of liberation from the norms of decency and compassion. The temptation is as old as the world, and it goes like this: “Constraints be damned, we are the strong; send her back, and build the wall. We are free to say anything we want to anyone, and we will crash all the others. Let us get some torches now, just drop me a hint when it is time to storm CNN.” It is nothing but the deadly sin of wrath, amplified by the crowd. It is only human to succumb to it, it has happened many times in the past, which does not make it any less deadly.

Nazis dismantled German democracy using the Reichstag fire as a pretext. The Weimar republic was not the strongest democracy in the world, but it had a democratic constitution and a functioning parliamentary political system. All of it was gone within one year. While I still believe the American democracy is too strong to be dismantled, I worry about an unexpected additional crisis – a large natural disaster, or a significant military or terrorist attack, or another great recession. And extra push may be just too much. How would our Commander in Chief behave? More importantly, What will his blue-eyed supporters demand him to do?

What makes me worried is the wave of nationalistic authoritarianism around the world. European democracies are in danger; Turkey, Russia, China, and a few other countries slip further away from democracy. China is about to crash Hong Kong. UK has an irresponsible buffoon in charge. Winter is coming.

The risks are too high. In the last season of the GOT, the story turns into an all-encompassing battle of all the living against the dead. Old enemies had to fight side by side, because the common threat was too great to squabble amongst themselves. One could not get along with the Army of the Dead. Winter is not the time for the living to pursue their narrow ideological agendas. This is the time to build a broadest possible coalition against authoritarianism and racism. That is the only thing I could think of watching the Democratic Primaries debates.

There is nothing wrong with fighting a defensive battle when the stakes are so high. It does not matter which wing of the party wins the nomination. As long as they do not slaughter each other before the real battle, anyone of them will do fine.