Category Archives: Education (higher ed)

Tech’s “Smart Infrastructure” Initiative Progresses

Virginia Tech's Goodwin Hall: traditional hokie stone on the outside, braniac smart building on the inside

Virginia Tech’s Goodwin Hall: traditional hokie stone on the outside, braniac smart building on the inside

by James A. Bacon

Virginia Tech has been re-thinking for a several years now how to invigorate traditional engineering disciplines by integrating civil engineering and computer engineering to create “smart infrastructure.” The $100 million initiative received a $5 million boost yesterday from the Hitt family, owners of Falls Church-based Hitt Contraction, a company that typically recruits eight to ten Virginia Tech graduates every year, according to the Washington Business Journal.

The Tech initiative is incredibly timely. In arguably the biggest revolution since the invention of structural steel that made possible the construction of new classes of bridges and skyscrapers in the 1930s, the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) is introducing radical change to the construction industry. The IoT is a catch phrase for the integration of ubiquitous sensors into buildings and structures that generate data that can be used to improve performance.

An in-house Virginia Tech article made note last year of Virginia Tech’s “Smart Infrastructure Laboratory,” which includes smart building technology that, among other things, can guide occupants to safety during disasters, and its Structural Systems and Lifecycle Reliability Team, which works at the intersection of engineering materials and systems to advance structural safety, resiliency and durability.

Virginia Tech’s Goodwin Hall … is known as the world’s most-instrumented building for measurement of vibrations. Measuring motion and vibration inside and outside the walls, 212 accelerometers can detect even the slightest movement. The sensors feed data into data acquisition boxes via 65,000 feet of cable interconnecting the entire system. Data can be used to save energy costs, guide maintenance crews, or deploy first responders in an emergency.

The Structural Systems and Lifecycle Reliability Team has a measurement and visualization system that can generate 3-D representations of any object or environment over time. These models can identify gradual changes such as a gusset plate buckling in a bridge or cracks in a building after an earthquake. The system has been used to measure deformations in a steel plate wall and in the field to identify cracks in a concrete bridge over the James River.

Virginia Tech will start work in January on “Hitt Hall” for smart construction and another unnamed building for intelligent design. Meanwhile, Tech is expanding and linking its smart road partnership with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), its smart city partnership with Arlington County, and a 300-acre “smart neighborhood” to serve as a proving ground for new technologies.

Bacon’s bottom line: The Internet of Things is revolutionizing the built environment — everything from buildings to roads and bridges, from waste water systems to electric grids. The cost of sensors is plummeting, and so is the cost of transmitting data to the Cloud. The idea of “smart” bridges and “smart” buildings is not hype — it’s real. It’s here. And leading construction companies like Hitt are building teams that can pull all the pieces together. Tech is wisely making the program multidisciplinary, opening it up to engineers, business majors and students in other study areas, reports the WBJ, “as the lines between technology, infrastructure and business continue to blur.”

I can’t believe that Virginia Tech is the only university exploiting this opportunity — I don’t track what other institutions are doing — but at the very least it deserves kudos for being an early mover. Hopefully, Virginia-based companies like Hitt Construction will tap graduates with the new skill sets to gain a competitive economic advantage in the marketplace.

Meanwhile, Virginia political and government leaders would do well to acquaint themselves with the state-of-the-art work at Virginia Tech and start thinking creatively how to apply the Internet of Things to Virginia’s own infrastructure. The potential maintenance savings from the application of smart technologies to government-owned buildings, utilities and transportation infrastructure is immense. The potential to optimize transportation systems, conserve energy and reduce man’s impact on the environment is transformative. VDOT and Arlington County are ahead of the curve. Everyone else needs to get with the program.

W&M Takes the Money and Runs

History of William & Mary cost of attendance (tuition, fees, room, board,

History of William & Mary cost of attendance (tuition, fees, room, board) for in-state students.

by James A. Bacon

The General Assembly boosted state funding for higher education by $300 million in the upcoming two-year budget in the hope that public universities would restrain tuition increases. Most universities have complied. Even the University of Virginia dialed back its planned tuition hike from 3% to 1.4%. But the College of William & Mary has decided to take the money and run. An extra $3.8 million from the state is not enough to induce the university to back off its plan to jack up tuition 12% for the incoming freshman class this fall.

W&M’s defense, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch: Technically, the tuition does not constitute an increase, for it applies to incoming undergraduate students only, and the university has pledged to freeze their payments for their four-year attendance at the college.

Maybe so, but tuition just keeps climbing, along with the overall cost of attendance, as can be seen in the graph above taken from online W&M data. (You might notice that four years of data are missing. That’s because W&M switched formats for reporting the cost of attendance, omitting the cost of room and board for four years, making it impossible for anyone drawing information from the Web to make a continuous, apples-to-apples comparison of the total cost of attendance.)

If the total cost of in-state attendance had marched in lockstep with the Consumer Price Index, it would be about $9,400 today. Instead, the actual cost will be an eyelash shy of $36,000 — four times higher.

The perennial excuse for higher tuition and fees is cuts in state funding. There’s just enough truth there to be semi-plausible. State support for William & Mary has rebounded in recent years but it is still lower than back in 2001. Here are the numbers for state support:

2000-2001 school year — $50 million
2012-2013 — $40.6 million
2013-2014 — $42.4 million
2014-2015 — 42.5 million
2015-2016 — $43.7 million
2016-2017 — $47.3 million

Adjusting for inflation, the General Assembly has fallen $20 million behind over 16 years. But consider: there are 6,300 undergraduates enrolled at W&M. At $36,000 a pop, increased tuition, fees and revenues (before adjusting for student aid) should bring in $227 million, an increase of about $189 million. Cuts in state support for higher education account for about 10% of that increase. Clearly, there are far more important factors at work, and just as clearly, those costs are out of control.

Del. S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, is not happy. “I’m extremely disappointed,” he told the T-D. “This is mind-numbing ad potentially shows the (college) board of visitors are out of touch with reality.”

Said Vice Chair R. Steven Landes, R-Augusta: “”They’re really making it tough for middle-income individuals and families to afford William & Mary.” The board’s decision, he said, is “outrageous.”

Bacon’s bottom line: William & Mary perceives itself as a “public ivy.” Its administration, faculty and board of visitors are all driven by a desire to maximize the prestige of the institution, which means enrolling students with higher SAT scores, recruiting more prestigious faculty, building a bigger endowment, and doing all the other things that win accolades in the U.S. News & World-Report top college rankings — even while competing against other prestigious institutions who also want to climb in the rankings. Meanwhile, the university is buckling under higher regulatory costs, with the federal government playing a more intrusive role than ever before, and it needs more money to pay for financial aid for poor and working class students.

Of all the competing goals that W&M would like to achieve, affordability for the middle class gets the short stick… which happens to be a top goal of General Assembly politicians catering to middle-class constituents. Tension is built into the state-university relationship.

Deep down inside, William & Mary wants to privatize, jack tuition and fees to the level the market will bear, recycle money back to the poor, and increase its standing and prestige compared to peer institutions. While I vacillate on the topic, I usually tend to the view that we should let W&M be W&M. Let the institution go private, end state support, and re-direct the $47 million a year to other public institutions.

How Diversity Initiatives Could Increase Black Alienation

VCU student protest. Image credit:

VCU student protest. Image credit:

by James A. Bacon

Jonathan Haidt and Lee Jussim make a scary prediction: The expansion of diversity programs in response to racial protests in American universities will serve to isolate and alienate African-American students and increase racial tensions, the very opposite of their intended result.

Haidt and Jussim, professors at New York University and Rutgers University respectively, advance their argument in an important Wall Street Journal op-ed last week. Their argument is as germane here in Virginia as anywhere in the United States, where African-Americans students at the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University have demanded that the universities enroll more blacks, hire more black professors, implement sensitivity “training” programs, and dedicate more funds to black cultural organizations.

“The existing research literature suggests that such reforms will fail to achieve their stated aims of reducing discrimination and inequality,” write the authors in “Hard Truths about Race on Campus.” “In fact, we think that they are likely to damage race relations and to make campus life more uncomfortable for everyone, particularly black students.”

What follows is essentially a Reader’s Digest summation of the Haidt-Jussim argument. I have done my best to avoid injecting my own perspectives into the narrative until the “bottom line” segment, although I readily concede that I agree whole-heartedly with the conclusions.

It is a trait of humankind to draw distinctions between “us” and “them,” and for people to discriminate in favor of in-group members. That does not mean that drawing distinctions based on race is inevitable, however. When groups face a common threat or challenge, enmity dissolves and a mindset of “one for all and all for one” emerges.

The problem is that the demands of black students on many college campuses would sharpen race-based distinctions.

A common demand is to admit more black students into college. In a world in which the K-12 pipeline of graduating high school students vary widely by race in their academic preparation, meeting that goal would require adopting different admission standards for applicants of different races. Even now, in the absence of such aggressive recruiting, Asian students enter with combined math/verbal SAT scores on the order of 80 points higher than white students and 200 points higher than black students.

If a school commits to doubling the number of black students, it will have to reach deeper into its pool of black applicants, admitting those with weaker qualifications, particularly if most other school are doing the same thing. This is likely to make racial gaps larger, which would strengthen the negative stereotypes that students of color find when they arrive on campus.

Not only would such aggressive recruiting of black students perpetuate negative stereotypes, it would perpetuate segregation on campus. Students tend to befriend those who are similar to themselves in academic development. “If a school increases its affirmative action efforts in ways that expand those gaps, it is likely to end up with more self-segregation and fewer cross-race friendships, and therefore with even stronger feelings of alienation among black students.”

As minority students retreat into the ethnic enclaves enabled by increased funding for cultural organizations, the perception will increase that ethnic groups are locked into zero-sum competition with one another and the feeling that they are victimized by virtue of their ethnicity. “If the goal is to foster a welcoming and inclusive culture on campus, the best current research suggests that the effort will backfire.”

Could such results be offset by diversity “training”? The limited literature on the subject suggests not. Such programs “often induce ironic negative effects (such as reactance or backlash) by implying that participants are at fault for current diversity challenges.”

How about “microaggression” training? That, too, will likely inflame racial tensions. Continue reading

Meanwhile at GMU… a Battle over Scalia’s Name and Legacy

GMU President Angel Cabrera. Photo credit: Washington Business Journal

GMU President Angel Cabrera. Photo credit: Washington Business Journal

by James A. Bacon

There are only a few prestigious outposts of free-market thought in the world of higher education. The Hoover Institution at Stanford comes to mind, as does the University of Chicago School of Economics. Then there are two gems at George Mason University — the Mercatus Center and the George Mason School of Law.

Mercatus scholars opine on economic issues with an emphasis on fiscal conservatism and free-markets, while the School of Law is renowned as a center of the discipline of “law and economics,” which applies microeconomic theory to the analysis of the law. Mercatus has come under scrutiny for its support by free-market industrialist Charles Koch, the very mention of whose name sends progressives into paroxysms but until recently, the school of law had escaped vilification. But that’s all changed since $30 million in donations from the Charles Koch Foundation and an anonymous donor would rename the law school in honor of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Various schools, centers and institutes in higher education across the country are named in honor of liberal, progressive and Democratic icons, but the thought that a single law school being named after a conservative paragon is too much for some to bear. Last week, GMU’s faculty senate passed a resolution expressing “deep concern” about the gifts and the renaming of the school in honor of Scalia.

Faculty members objected to memorializing a Supreme Court Justice who contributed to the “polarized climate in this country that runs counter to the values of a university that celebrates civil discourse” and worried about external branding of the university “as a conservative institution.”

Furthermore, the faculty senate said the administration had failed to disclose the terms of the gifts that would provide funding for 12 new faculty, additional staff and support for two new centers for a ten-year period, and wondered what long-term liability the university might incur from these new commitments.

The controversy has gotten considerable press in the Washington area. Some were quick to play the race card. Washingtonian magazine, for instance, gave prominent attention to the remarks of the president of GMU’s Black Law Student Association, who called Scalia “a borderline racist who’s made terrible comments” referring to affirmative action. Such an action, she said, would only contribute to a feeling of “isolation” in a student body that’s only 4% black.

But GMU President Angel Cabrera stood firm in a letter responding to the faculty:

Agreement with his views is, however, not the reason why we are renaming the law school for Justice Scalia. We are not endorsing his opinions on any specific issue. We are recognizing a man who served our country at the highest level of government for 30 years and who many experts of diverse ideological persuasions—from faculty colleagues in our law school, to his peers on the Supreme Court, to the president of the United States—consider to have been a great jurist who had a profound impact in the legal field.

Earlier this year, Cabrera noted, GMU had been criticized for “opinions expressed by some of our faculty in the area of climate change prevention.” Some colleagues suggested that he publicly condemn those views and distance the university from them. “My position then was clear and has not changed: we must ensure that George Mason University remains an example of diversity of thought.”

(Cabrera was referring, of course, to the criticism of Jagadish Shukla, the climatologist who signed a letter urging the Obama administration to criminally prosecute Exxon-Mobil under the federal racketeering act for misrepresenting what it knew about climate change. I can’t think of the last time a GMU law school faculty member recommended criminal prosecution of an ideological foe. Shukla also, as it happens, came under scrutiny for doubling his university compensation by paying himself from his federal grant money, not to mention putting his wife on his foundation payroll.)

As for GMU taking $50 million from the Koch Foundation over the past decade, it is “farfetched,” Cabrera said, to suggest that such gifts could shape the ideology of the largest public research university in Virginia.

“I want to emphasize that our commitment to diversity and inclusion will not waver,” he said. On the contrary, the $30 million gift will make scholarships available to “help attract diverse students to the law school.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Here is one more example of leftists trying to squelch conservative thought on campus. Thirty-eight percent of all Americans may self-identify as conservative, more than the 24% who self-identify as liberal, but liberals and progressives are so cocooned with like-minded brethren that conservative thought seems to them not merely misguided or wrong but grotesque and offensive — indeed, so offensive as to be run off campus.

I have criticized GMU for the way the university has seemingly swept the Shukla controversy under the rug, but I have to give credit to Cabrera for his cajones this time. The Washington media mostly ignored the Shukla story, but the Scalia story has generated massive publicity. Cabrera’s goal is building the institution. If that means welcoming climatologist Shukla and his Institute for Global Environment and Society from the University of Maryland (an effort that preceded Cabrera’s tenure), then OK. If it means accepting gifts from Charles Koch to endow chairs for the law school, then he’s OK with that as well.

I would agree with the faculty senate on one thing, remarkably enough: There should be transparency to these mega-gifts. If the donors attach strings, the university community should know what they are. Also, it is a legitimate question to ask if the $30 million gift could create long-term financial obligations for the commonwealth. Of course, that transparency applies to all mega-gifts, not just those donated by the Koch Foundation.

Virginia Tech Profs Dis-Invite Conservative Columnist to Avoid Controversy

Jason Riley: the wrong kind of black man

Jason Riley: the wrong kind of black man

by James A. Bacon

Jason Riley is an African-American editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal editorial page who opines on the condition of black America from a conservative perspective. He receives roughly 15 invitations a year to speak on college campuses on issues ranging from police shootings, the Black Lives matter movement and mass incarceration. One such invitation came recently from Virginia Tech. Here’s what happened:

Last month I was invited by a professor to speak at Virginia Tech in the fall. Last week, the same professor reluctantly rescinded the invitation, citing concerns from his department head and other faculty members that my writings on race in the Wall Street Journal would spark protests. Profiles in campus courage.

This incident follows close on the heels of a move to dis-invite controversial conservative sociologist Charles Murray that was blocked by President Tim Sands. (See “A Small Victory for Academic Freedom.”) Judging from Riley’s brief description, his speech never came to Sands’ attention. What happened was actually worse. The professors in the academic department in question acted proactively to stave off objections before they could even rise to the level of a controversy. What occurred was self-censorship.

Excluding speakers from campus because of their political beliefs makes a mockery of universities as centers of intellectual diversity and free inquiry. (While the tantrums of leftists get all the attention in conservative media, protests, disruptions and dis-invitations are initiated by those on the right as well as the left, as can be seen in this Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) database. They’re not as frequent, but they do occur.)

It’s time for push back. If university administrators can’t maintain intellectual diversity on campus, then maybe it’s time that the boards of visitors start applying pressure. If board members have acted behind the scenes to safeguard free speech, it’s not clear how effective they have been. To made a difference, the public needs to put pressure on board members.

If you know a board member personally, you need to speak up. One board member is within my circle of acquaintances, who I see a couple of times a year, and I can promise you, he’s going to catch an earful!

I don’t know how well Virginia Tech board members will respond to hectoring by me, a Wahoo. But they will listen to Virginia Tech alumni. They will really listen to Virginia Tech alumni who start withholding contributions. What does it matter if a university gains a new building or research lab and loses its soul?

Update: Virginia Tech contends that no formal invitation was ever issued to Riley, according to a letter issued by Robert T. Sumichrast, dean of the Pamplin College of Business. Here’s what he says happened:

A faculty member did reach out to Mr. Riley to inquire of his interest in speaking at Virginia Tech. When Mr. Riley was not selected by the committee the same faculty member emailed Mr. Riley with his personal explanation of why he had not been selected. This faculty member does not represent the committee’s voice and this faculty member did not extend an invitation nor rescind an invitation.

Update to the update: Sumichrast has walked back his denial, conceding that he wrote in error, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, and an invitation has been extended to Riley.

Here follows a list of Virginia Tech’s board of visitor members: Continue reading

Reader Alert: Another Jeremiad about Debt and Risk

Richmond Fed "Bailout Barometer" -- federal backing of total U.S. debt   increased another 0.7% in 2015 to reach almost 61%.

Richmond Fed “Bailout Barometer” — federal backing of total U.S. debt increased another 0.7% in 2015 to reach almost 61%.

Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., at the Wall Street Journal reminds us how countries around the world, including the United States, are doubling down on debt to stave off recession:

The Richmond Fed’s “bailout barometer” shows that, since the 2008 crisis, 61% of all liabilities in the U.S. financial system are now implicitly or explicitly guaranteed by government, up from 45% in 1999.

Citigroup estimates that the top 20 advanced industrial economies, in addition to their enormous, recognized public debts, also face unrecorded additional debts of $78 trillion for their unfunded pension systems.

Six years after a crisis caused by excessive borrowing, McKinsey estimates that even visible global debt has increased by $57 trillion, while in the U.S., Europe, Japan and China growth to pay back these liabilities has been slowing or absent.

No one likes recessions but they serve a useful purpose — they wring bad investments out of the economy and reallocate resources to more productive uses. But that’s not much consolation to a laid off Intel employee in the U.S. or a laid off cement-plant worker in China. So, politicians and central bankers around the world are doubling down on variations of the same strategy of spending, borrowing and financial repression (driving down interest rates to transfer wealth from savers to debtors) to perpetuate economic growth. When countries start experimenting with negative interest rates, the consequences of which no one can predict, you know that policy makers are desperate.

The global economy is entering a new phase: the end game in which democratic welfare states struggle to maintain massive entitlements in the face of aging populations and slowing economic growth. The United States is not as far down this road as some other countries, but absent major policy changes, deficits and the national debt are heading inexorably higher. Don’t believe me — believe the Congressional Budget Office.

Meanwhile, the four leading contenders for U.S. president are advancing platforms totally disconnected from reality. The cost of Bernie Sanders’ programs, if implemented, would cost $18 trillion over ten years, estimates the Wall Street Journal. Donald Trump’s tax-cut plan would cost $9.5 trillion over 10 years, says the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, while the Ted Cruz tax plan would cost $8.5 trillion, according to the same group. The least fiscally irresponsible candidate, Hillary Clinton, would expand government spending by a mere $1 trillion over ten years, according to the McClatchy news organization

We can argue about the biases of the groups crunching these numbers, but that would miss the point. The odds are overwhelming that the next president of the United State will not be remotely serious about balancing the budget. Liberals argue that bigger spending can be paid for with taxes on the rich with little or no adverse impact on the economy, and conservatives can argue that the “dynamic” effects of tax cuts will stimulate economic growth and bring in more revenue than static models would indicate. Yeah, right.

Hither Virginia? There is little that Virginia can do to buffer its economy from these national and international trends, nor can state and local governments insulate themselves from collapsing tax revenue in the next recession. But they can protect themselves by maintaining AAA bond ratings and putting their public pensions on a sound footing so that when the crunch does come, they will be better positioned to meet long-term obligations without debilitating tax increases.

I am particularly worried about two categories of state-local debt. The first category is university debt backed by revenue from students. The higher ed bubble is unsustainable even during a period of modest economic growth. A recession will leave many institutions destitute, and a Boomergeddon-scale calamity could leave the entire industry in a shambles. A second category is debt taken on for “economic development” projects like sports stadiums, convention centers, golf courses, and other glittering objects that are best paid for by private investors trained in analyzing risk.

You can add a third category of long-term obligation: maintaining transportation services such as Washington-area metro, Virginia Beach light rail, Richmond bus rapid transit, and the like, which will require government subsidies in perpetuity. Could local governments support those services in a severe revenue downturn? Doubtful. Likewise, I am suspicious of toll-backed highway bonds assuming long-term traffic growth even as the evolution to more dense, mixed-use communities scrambles traditional commuting patterns, and as Uber, Lyft, Bridj, transportation-as-a-service enterprises, and self-driving cars seem destined to radically alter Americans’ driving habits.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about building “anti-fragile” enterprises and institutions — entities that are not merely resilient in the face of massive adversity but can thrive in adversity. Virginia can become anti-fragile if state and local governments, in the face of a global economic meltdown, can maintain the ability to provide core government services while other states and metros are falling apart. Talent and capital will migrate to the oases of stability. A handful of states will prosper. Will ours be one of them?

Thumbs up for Virginia Undergrad Business Schools


McIntire School of Commerce

The new Bloomberg ranking of undergraduate business programs in the United States provides the following rankings among the top 100:

University of Virginia (McIntire): No. 5
College of William & Mary (Mason): 12
James Madison: 41
University of Richmond (Robins): 46
Virginia Tech (Pamplin): 64

Virginia universities may not be leaders in R&D, but they produce a wealth of human capital. It would be really interesting to know how many graduates of these business school pursue careers in Virginia. The fact that McIntire, Mason and Robins are rated much higher by students than by employers suggests that they are under-recruited by business, particularly out-of-state firms. I would conjecture that a disproportionate number of these grads stay in Virginia. That may or may not be good for them professionally, but is undoubtedly beneficial to the Virginia economy.