Publicly opposing Centre College can potentially be smart politics

In Sunday’s Advocate-Messenger, Danville Mayor and Republican candidate for county Judge-Executive Bernie Hunstad identified Centre College among several groups in the community politically opposed to his candidacy: 

 “I believe I am the underdog in the primary, and I believe I will be the underdog in November,” Hunstad said. “I’m running against Lynn, the EDP (Danville-Boyle County Economic Development Partnership), Centre College, the McKinney supporters and the newspaper.” (Page A01 and A08 of April 2oth’s edition; not yet available online.)

As I interpret this comment, Mayor Hunstad was listing groups in the community that he believes are opposed to his candidacy for Judge-Executive. It occurred to me, though, that perhaps by publicly aligning against each of those groups (including Centre College), it may serve to elicit support from potential Republican primary voters who also view those groups unfavorably.

In the 2011 Boyle County Exit Poll, we asked voters whether they agreed or disagreed that “Centre College gets too many unfair advantages within the city of Danville.” This is a measure of implicit “resentment” toward the College, and 26.5% of respondents indicated that they “agree.” It’s possible that by publicly claiming that the Centre College community is opposed to his candidacy, he may increase his support with the quarter of the community that also harbors unfavorable attitudes toward the college. Given that more than a quarter of Danville harbors implicitly resentful attitudes toward Centre, that’s not a bad political strategy. 

(I should note, though, that there doesn’t seem to be a political relationship with feelings of Centre resentment as 26.6% of Democrats compared to 25.6% of Republicans said that they thought that Centre had unfair advantages in the community – a statistically insignificant difference. So there’s no clear advantage for winning a Republican vs. a Democratic primary by aligning against the College.)

Finally, the 2012 Boyle County Exit Poll showed that about 58% of Boyle County had a favorable view of Judge-Executive Democratic incumbent Harold McKinney while only 14% had an unfavorable opinion (28% DK/no opinion). The same survey showed Mayor Hunstad with a 32% approve/46% disapprove (22% DK/no opinion). Clearly whoever emerges from the Republican primary will face an uphill battle to unseat Judge McKinney in November.

Some final thoughts on the Road Diet issue in Danville

The Advocate-Messenger reported on Wednesday that the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet announced that plans to consider the “Road Diet” option in Danville have been cancelled. The article reports that no one is exactly sure who was involved or how that decision was reached, but reports that it likely came from some high-level official in the Kentucky state government somewhere. 

Here are a few final thoughts I’ve had recently on the recent Road Diet discussion over the past week or two:

First, numerous letters to the editor have made claims to the “will of the majority” on this issue (see here and here, e.g.). Road Diet opponents claimed that they had a “majority” on their side and proponents made similar arguments. Well, they can’t both be true. So who is right? Were the majority of Danville residents in support of or opposed to the Road Diet proposal? From my perspective, the answer is “we don’t know.” No one did a scientific probability survey nor did anyone happen to talk to all 16,000+ Danville residents on the matter. I think there’s good evidence that a majority of downtown business owners were opposed to the Road Diet and that a majority of city and EDP officials were in support. We can also confidently say that a majority of letters to the editor were opposed. But these three groups are not representative of the entire population and are numerically less than 0.5% of all city residents. So any claims to know what a “majority of Danville” thought on the matter cannot be supported with existing evidence and we should be more cautious in our claims about what the “majority” thinks on this issue.

Second, I am very impressed with level of activity with which the downtown business owners organized on this issue. They saw an issue that they were concerned about, they showed up to meetings, they organized petitions, they wrote letters, etc. Although we have no publicly-available evidence one way or another, it’s possible that their efforts either directly or indirectly affected the decision of the state to cancel the Road Diet plan. (It’s also possible that the two were completely unrelated, I don’t have enough information to know either way.) Either way, kudos to them for taking action and participating in democratic self-governance. The lesson for Road Diet proponents is that they should have been quicker to organize and just as vocal if they wanted to have the same level of influence.

Third, (and this is completely a guess – this could be wrong), I imagine that those running for Danville City Commission this fall are relieved not to have to take a public stand one way or another on this issue now that it’s out of their hands. It would be interesting to ask them during this fall’s campaign how they would have voted on this issue if it had been permitted to continue. Mayor Hunstad is the only one (to my knowledge) to have expressed a public stand on the issue.

Fourth, Pam Wright reported in her article: “Numerous other sources claim to believe an individual or small group of individuals had an influence at the state level to stop the decision.” I would urge Ms. Wright, or anyone else for that matter, to try to find out exactly who this “individual or small group of individuals” was and publicize the information. Transparency, openness, and honesty are hallmarks of good government, and from the available evidence it looks like this decision was made in the dark by a few people without public input… exactly the kind of decision-making process that the downtown business owners were originally protesting. Ultimately, this decision was not made in an open, transparent, or “democratic” fashion.

Response to recent criticisms of Road Diet analysis

Danville resident Wilma Brown authored a letter to the editor appearing in today’s Advocate Messenger. Her letter questions the applicability of the Road Diet analysis performed by my students earlier this month (see here and here) to the situation here in Danville. Her primary concern deals with how closely the businesses surveyed in both Georgetown and Elizabethtown match the situation that local businesses have on Danville’s Main Street. Specifically, she argues that in neither community (in contrast to Danville) the businesses surveyed are located directly on the streets where the lane reductions (“Road Diet”) have recently occurred.

In my view, Ms. Brown raises a fair point which deserves consideration. I do not disagree with her argument that neither Georgetown nor Elizabethtown are directly comparable to Danville given the points that were raised in her letter the editor. That being said, social scientists and urban planners are rarely presented with a situation where there is a perfect and direct comparison case to study in trying to analyze the potential effects of various policy decisions. City of Danville officials, working together with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, worked for several weeks to try to find a “perfect” comparison city in Kentucky with the same size, economics, traffic patterns, etc. as Danville and ultimately decided to ask the students in my class to survey businesses in both Georgetown and Elizabethtown, those two cities being what they determined to be the closest possible comparison communities to Danville, with the closest possible comparison businesses to survey. As with all public endeavors, we do the very best we can with the evidence and resources available to us.

Ultimately, is the analysis that my students performed perfect? No. But neither is any other report that has been presented or evidence offered so far on the subject. That is why I recommended at the community meeting last Thursday that my students’ report be considered as one piece of evidence to add to the mix of evidences being collected. I repeat what I said at the meeting: we are more likely to come to more accurate picture of the reality of something by gathering as much data as possible on the topic using as many different approaches as possible and then taking the “average” of the entire picture of evidence. The report that my students contributed to Danville’s Road Diet discussion should be considered as one piece of evidence to contribute to the discussion, but certainly not to end the discussion. While Georgetown and Elizabethtown are certainly not perfect comparison communities, more appropriate comparisons have yet to be brought forth to the public discussion. While there may not be “slam dunk” evidence that Road Diets have no effect on local businesses, neither has there been compelling and systematic evidence presented that Road Diets have detrimental effects either.

Personally, taking the “average of everything” approach, I think the available evidence is persuasive that we can confidently say that lane reductions make communities safer for both pedestrians and automobiles. I also think that the available evidence is ultimately insufficient to be able to say with confidence whether lane reductions have adverse or beneficial effects on local businesses adjacent to lane-reduced thoroughfares. What little evidence there is provides a mixed picture. Further evidence and research is certainly warranted.

For example, doing a quick Google search of “Road Diet economic impact” reveals a number of analyses and reports from communities around the country. These are some of the first things that populated the search results:

I invite community members to take a look at these reports and consider their research designs, findings, and appropriateness of comparability to Danville. I also invite community members to continue their research (beyond a five-minute Google search as I presented above) as to the advantages and disadvantages, both to public safety as well as local businesses, of Road Diet plans in determining whether or not to support such a proposal in Danville. I commend Ms. Brown and other community members for their careful attention to important public issues such as this. As with any important public matter, citizens as well as public officials have the obligation to gather as much evidence as possible and weigh competing trade-offs between public safety and economic vitality (as well as many other considerations) in coming to a final decision. 

Analysis of Road Diets on businesses in Georgetown and Elizabethtown

This semester students in my POL 210 “Introduction to American Politics” course have been working on a policy analysis investigating the effect of the “Road Diets” implemented in Georgetown, KY and Elizabethtown, KY in 2012. This was done as part of a “service-learning” component of the course. Centre College emphasizes engaged and experiential learning and often partners with community members to give students a chance to engage in “real world” learning experiences. As such, the students in my course took responsibility for this project and were almost exclusively responsible for all the data gathering, analysis, and writing of the final report, with some minor supervision from their instructor.

In this case, our report was produced at the request of Danville City Manager Ron Scott who asked for assistance in gathering data about how other Road Diets have affected downtown businesses in two Kentucky cities that implemented Road Diets in 2012: Georgetown and Elizabethtown. It is anticipated that this report will contribute to the ongoing conversation about whether or not the City of Danville should recommend to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet whether or not to implement a Road Diet when Main Street in Danville is repaved in the summer of 2014. (See background on this issue here as well as the local EDP’s website on the issue here.) 

The full report is available for download by clicking HERE.

The Executive Summary is as follows:

This policy analysis reports the results of a study of both Elizabethtown and Georgetown related to the effects of a Road Diet system implemented in each community in 2012. The study took into account various economic indicators such as unemployment rates and tax revenues. This study also gathered information from business owners/managers whose businesses are located adjacent to streets where a Road Diet was put into place in 2012. This input was gathered via a telephone survey covering the owners’ perceptions on the effects of the Road Diet in the community on his or her own business.

The key findings of this study are:

  1. There is little evidence that the Road Diet had a detrimental effect on businesses in terms of their customer volume, revenue, and livelihood.
  2. After the Road Diet was implemented, business owners perceived their customers to have safe access to the business front and reported little difficulties in truck deliveries to their stores and little difficulty in customer parking and access.
  3. The Road Diet did not seem to affect either unemployment rates or tax revenues in either community.
  4. The Road Diet seemed to negatively affect the two communities studied in terms of a perceived increase in traffic on the part of business owners.
  5. Overall, business owners think that the Road Diet had a negative impact on the community as a whole, but for reasons other than its economic consequences. 

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Benjamin Knoll:

Another annual re-post of my St. Patrick’s Day blog post:

Originally posted on Information Knoll:

The following is a re-post from last year’s St. Patrick’s Day post:

Granted, I’m only 15% Irish. The rest of me is German-Russian (35%) and English (50%). But unfortunately, there just aren’t that many German or English heritage holidays to celebrate. So it’s to St. Patrick’s Day that a turn to celebrate my ethnic heritage.

My g-g-g-g-g-g-grandfather, Michael, was born around 1775 in Ireland. He married Marianne and they had a daughter named Mary around 1799. She married Dennis Rogers (b. 1796) and they had a daughter named Margery. They all came to the United States in the 1840s, along with almost two million of their compatriots, to escape the Great Potato Famine. Margery married Michael Murphy in New York City. They moved Wisconsin where they had seven children. One of these children, Alexander Rogers Murphy, was born in 1854. Alexander married Mary Ellen O’Brien in 1884 in Minnesota. Mary…

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Thoughts on “Good to Great” by Jim Collins

I recently read Good to Great by Jim Collins. Actually, I’m a busy person so I read Good to Great Summarized for Busy People by Wilson Publishers.

Here are some of the highlights that I thought were interesting:

  • Successful businesses have leaders who “combine extreme personal humility with intense professional will.”
  • What do successful leaders do?
    • Set up successors who will continue to do great after they leave.
    • They are compellingly modest and share the attention instead of seeking it for themselves.
    • They have unwavering resolve toward a goal.
    • “First Who… Then What” – they pick the best people for the team FIRST then with the team pick the goal. “If you have the right people … the problem of how to motivate and manage people largely goes away.”
    • They’re not afraid to say “I don’t know.” Instead, they get the best people and hash out the question to find the answer.
    • They hire the best people (self-disciplined people who don’t need to be managed) then give them freedom and autonomy within a framework.
    • “Good to great companies tend to have rigorous cultures, cultures in which leadership consistently applies exacting standards at all time and at all levels, especially upper management.”
    • “The moment you feel you need to tightly manage someone, you’ve made a hiring mistake.”
    • The world changes. Successful businesses change and adapt or they die off.
    • Great companies encourage debate and dialogue and genuinely take advantage of it. “It is used to engage people in the search for the best answers.”
    • Hedgehogs and Foxes: Foxes “pursue many ends at the same time and see the world in all its complexity” whereas Hedgehogs “simplify a complex world into a single idea or principle that unifies and guides everything.” In terms of successful businesses, Hedgehogs win and Foxes do not.
    • Find out what you’re best at and focus on that strength. Don’t expend energy trying to become something that you’re not going to be best at.
    • Slow and steady gains are more important than infrequent but flashy gains. The slow and steady gains will speak for themselves and motivate the organization to continue to excel. “Spend little energy trying to motivate or align people; the momentum of the flywheel is infectious.”

Here are some of my thoughts and ruminations on these ideas, specifically in regards to how these principles might apply in the context of higher education:

  • Higher education has an embarrassment of riches in terms of self-disciplined, motivated people to have in an organization. There’s a strong self-selection effect at work: most people become professional academics because they’re self-disciplined and motivated and they would not survive graduate school if they weren’t. In my limited experience, finding the “right people” is not often difficult in higher education settings.
  • Higher education contexts do not do well at encouraging Hedgehog leadership over Fox leadership. By their very nature, academics approach the world like Foxes: they see everything in terms of nuance and complexity and often have multiple goals and frameworks that they perceive the world through. They’re also asked to juggle fifty things at once between their various teaching, service, and research obligations. Expecting a group of academics to “simplify a complex world into a single idea or principle that unifies and guides everything” is borderline insanity.
  • The incentives of the higher education context do not often reward leaders who are “compellingly modest.” Oftentimes, the career success for academics depends a great deal on self-promotion and justifying one’s continued existence (i.e. the tenure and promotion system). Often, the more “headlines” an academic receives, the better his or her career prospects and opportunities for advancement. This seems to be in conflict with the goal of seeking out leaders that are “compellingly humble.”
  • I tend to agree with the “adapt or die” idea promoted in this book. I see many examples of that in higher education. College faculty sometimes seem to be especially resistant to change (or even the idea of change) in a world where change can often be the price required to avoid irrelevancy. 

Summary of “College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Our Students” by Jeffrey J. Selingo

I recently read College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Our Students by Jeffrey J. Selingo who is the Editor-at-Large for the Chronicle of Higher Education. All in all this was a very interesting book and provided a number of interesting questions about the way that college is delivered and experienced by today’s Millennial generation.

What follows is a chapter-by-chapter summary of the book that highlights the parts that I thought were important or interesting. Thus, this summary reflects my personal biases and interests.

Introduction

  • Only about half of students who start college actually finish. (ix)
  • A college education is still the best ticket to “get ahead” in today’s world, especially for disadvantaged students. (ix)
    • That being said, college is increasingly expensive, leading to an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor in the U.S. as the rich get college degrees and the poor do not. (xv, 17)
    • The higher education “industry” is can be very resistant to change. (xii)

Ch 1: The great credential race

  • “Colleges now view students as customers and market their degree programs as products.” (5)
  • The BA has become the new high school diploma, the MA has become the new BA, and the PhD the new MA. Getting degrees is highly valued in today’s economy. (8)
  • Students want to customize their college experience as they have learned to expect customization in other aspects of their life (= technology). (10)

Ch 2: The customer is always right

  • “Colleges are turning into businesses where customers –in this case, students—expect to be satisfied.” (20) “… course evaluations now look eerily similar to customer satisfaction surveys” (21)
  • Students expect their professors to be like performers. They “want to be engaged, persuaded, and entertained.” (21)
  • Grade inflation is occurring and will continue to occur. Students now tend to think that they “deserve an A because they did all of their assignments.” (24)
  • Why does college cost so much? One big reason: “state governments slashing budgets to higher education” (27)
  • Many college campuses are trying to appear like resorts and hotels to become more appealing to students. (30-34)

Ch 3: The trillion-dollar problemC

  • This chapter discusses the finances of tuition and financial aid.

Ch 4: The five disruptive forces that will change higher education forever

  • 1: “A sea of red ink” – college budgets were hit hard with the economic crisis of 2008 (58)
  • 2: “The disappearing state in public higher education” – state legislatures had no money either and so no money to pass along to universities (61)
  • 3: “The well of full-paying students is running dry” – this is one reason that colleges like to recruit internationally. International students can often pay full tuition. (64)
  • 4: “Unbundled alternatives are improving” – “unbundling” refers to the classes, degrees, credentials that up until recently came “bundled” with a college education. Now it’s getting easier to learn a skill in one place, take a class at another place, pick up a certificate from one institution, transfer credits to another, etc. The experience is getting more fragmented and customizable. (67)
  • 5: “The growing value gap” – the widening rich/poor gap is only being exacerbated by college affordability issues (70)

Ch 5: A personalized education

  • “Flipped classrooms” = students watch online lectures outside of class on a topic and then use class time to do projects or work through problems together. This becoming increasingly popular. (77)
  • “Big Data” is being used increasingly to predict student success and to recommend which classes/majors a student should sign up for (78-86). This is to help improve chances of graduation.

Ch 6: The online revolution

  • While technology has changed drastically over the last several years, professors today “teach exactly the same way they taught a thousand years ago” (89).
  • Many courses are now being putting online and content available for free through open course software and websites. This content is customizable, portable, and cheap.
  • Research has shown that students usually learn “just as much in the hybrid [online + face to face] format as they would have in the traditional course” (101).

Ch 7: The student swirl

  • Students are increasingly moving from institution to institution throughout their higher education experience. Transfers are becoming more common.
  • Students earn credit for each “credit hour” they take, which is defined by the government as “one hour of directly faculty instruction and two hours of work outside of the class during each week of the semester” (112).
  • As instruction becomes more customizable and technology makes education more portable and fragmented, what if we tried some different ideas? Example: what if degrees were granted based on skills/knowledge demonstrated instead of time spent in classrooms? (113)

Ch 8: Degrees of value

  • How do we measure the value of a college education?
  • We often measure this based on the average earnings of graduates. (124) Is this the best way to measure the “value” of an education? No, but it’s harder to quantify intangibles that we might prefer.
  • Do college majors matter? (130) He argues “no, not really” but instead critical thinking skills and competencies matter more. Although, STEM fields still earn more than humanities and social science majors on average.
  • Does the institution matter? He argues “more or less, yes” (131). Those who go to more selective schools tend to make more than those who go to less selective schools. Also, being a “B” student at a better school is better than being an “A” student at a poorer school in terms of post-graduate opportunities. (132-133)

Ch 9: The skills of the future

  • Double-majoring is on the rise because students are demanding it, not because educators think it’s a good idea (143).
  • Again, critical thinking skills, ability to solve problems, ability to be self-motivated, ability to get along with others, effective written/oral communication skills, etc. is more important that specific content or skills (145-147).
  • What should a student do in college to be successful afterwards? (149)
    • “Seek passionate faculty mentors” to take classes from and work with.
    • “Dive deep into a research project” – do undergraduate research projects.
    • “Go on a transformative learning experience” by studying abroad.
    • “Be creative, take risks, learn  how to fail”

Ch 10: Why college?

  • College prices are going up, in part, because of the demand for services from staff to “help students mature” (= student life, counseling, career services, etc.) “In many parts of the world, the maturing experience is provided before college by a mandatory national or military service.” (165)
  • As education and income are highly correlated and the economic gap is widening, we’re also geographically self-sorting and concentrating the best-educated into urban and metro areas of the country. (167)
  • Ultimately, college graduates are better able to “make sense of the world around them” (170).

Conclusion

  • Five ways higher education will change in the future
    • A personalized education (175): education will become increasingly personalized and customizable for each individual student, including course content, major requirements, semester start/stop schedules, etc.
    • Hybrid classes (177): online courses will continue play a more prominent role in our education.
    • Unbundling the degree (178): colleges will be forced to start unbundling their products (courses, certificates, skills, experiences, content, etc.) so that students can mix and match in more diverse ways.
    • Fluid timelines (179): why must college be a four-year experience? Why not let students go at their own pace, either faster or slower?
    • College moneywise (180): encourage saving for college and making it more affordable.

Finally, here are some of my personal ruminations on this book’s content:

  • I like that the four recommendations that the author makes to students are four of the things that Centre College does very well: 1) hires passionate faculty, 2) promotes undergraduate research, 3) promotes study abroad, and 4) provides opportunities for creativity.
  • I’m more interested in looking into ways that I could possibly incorporate more online content for my courses in an effective manner.
  • Personalization and “unbundling” of products sounds great from the students’ perspective, but I wonder how this would look from the instructor perspective. How in the world would a professor be able to create 30 different syllabi for 30 different students who all want a personalized education experience with their own customizable content, assignments, deadlines, etc.? This is an extreme form of the concept, admittedly, but I wonder how practical this would be in terms of implementation.
  • It seems that doing something to address the widening gap between the educated and un-educated should be made a much higher priority on the part of lawmakers and policymakers.
  • I’m part of the camp that is leery about measuring the value of a college experience based on potential post-graduate earnings. To me, the most valuable part of my seven years of higher education was learning the cognitive skills to be able to critically analyze the world around me and be able to make better judgments and decisions about how I interact with others and what I want to prioritize in my life. It’s hard to put a price tag on that.