Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

The cushy world of academia, surveillance 2.0 and $200 million to tear down a building

Steven Brill
Jul 30, 2013 11:36 UTC

1. Is higher ed the capital of featherbedding?

This sentence in an LA Times editorial two weeks ago about Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano becoming the president of the University of California caught my eye: “Half of the regents haven’t even had a chance to talk to her about how she would approach the job — a job that involves 10 campuses, 170,000 faculty and staff members and more than 220,000 students.”

Does it really take 170,000 faculty and staff to serve 220,000 students? Actually, not quite. According to the university’s website, there are 121,000 faculty and staff, not 170,000. But that still means 1.8 students for every faculty and staff member* faculty and staff members for every student — which doesn’t seem like much of a workload.

So I checked three other universities at random. New York University’s website says it has about 51,000 students and 16,000 employees, or about one employee for every three students. Harvard lists 16,500 faculty and staff for about 21,000 students, or 1.27 students for every employee. Florida State University says it has a faculty and staff of about 8,200 serving 41,000 students, or five students for every staff member.

Leaving out the staff and just counting faculty, California has 3.7 students for every faculty member; NYU has 6.3 per student; FSU has 17.8; and Harvard has 8.75.

All these staffing ratios suggest pretty light workloads and low productivity, especially given the size of so many of the classes faculty members typically teach.  And, at least in terms of reputation, the ratios don’t seem to correlate to quality, given the Harvard comparison to California or NYU.

Presidential aloofness, a patent rush, and disclosing Washington corruption

Steven Brill
Mar 19, 2013 10:08 UTC

1.   A scorecard on presidential aloofness:

Mark Knoller is the award-winning, long time CBS News White House correspondent famous for keeping count of everything that goes on in the White House, such as presidential press conferences, speeches, visits to various states and even golf outings. Memo to Mark or anyone else who wants to put some meat on the bones of all the reports about how President Obama — whose charm offensive on Capitol Hill has dominated last two weeks’ headlines  — has until now been so unusually disengaged with Congress: Can you do a comparison of how many times before his recent flurry of congressional encounters President Obama has met with members of the House and Senate? It could include a sub-category of one-on-one sessions, and compare Obama’s record, if possible, with the stats for presidents going as far back as you can. (Maybe Bob Caro can help you even get the LBJ numbers.)

A tally of one-on-one phone calls would be great, too.

2.   Black Friday at the patent office?

Saturday morning at 12:01 marked a key deadline in the world of intellectual property. Under a change in patent law passed in September 2011 and scheduled to take effect on Saturday, March 16, 2013, rules governing new applications for seemingly the same inventions will shift from giving priority to whoever first invented a claimed invention to whoever first filed a patent application for it. It’s complicated, but this is a drastic change in patent law and means that anyone claiming a patent who is worried about competing claims would have a huge leg up by filing the application as soon as possible beginning on March 16.

Patent law has become a multi-billion dollar legal sweepstakes. So was the patent office flooded over the weekend? Was there a run up to March 16 equivalent for patent lawyers to the black Friday holiday rush for retailers?

The next terrorist attack, Obama’s Medicare cuts, and the gun lobby

Steven Brill
Jan 22, 2013 16:03 UTC

1. The next terrorist attack may turn your lights out for weeks:

Or it may cause a dozen planes to crash at once because the air traffic control system goes haywire. Or it could play havoc with our email, e-commerce, use of credit cards, and the stock markets. Or do all of the above.

Because I’m on the Department of Homeland Security’s press release list, I’m forever seeing announcements of one DHS official or another speaking at some conference on protecting our critical infrastructure. Last week, DHS’s “National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD) Office of Emergency Communications Region IV Coordinator” spoke at one in Tampa, and two other officials will be speaking at conferences on Jan. 23. The problem is that while there are endless forums about the threats, little is being done to deal with them.

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, many news organizations went back and looked at the scant attention paid to a commission chaired by former Senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman that delivered a report to the Bush Administration on Jan. 31, 2001, warning that if the country didn’t start shoring up its intelligence and defenses, “America will become increasingly vulnerable to hostile attack on our homeland, and our military superiority will not help us.” Last fall, a series of measures to protect our critical infrastructure – everything from the power grid to electronic systems enabling air traffic control – failed to make it out of Congress despite warnings from Homeland Security and Pentagon officials that, as with the Hart-Rudman prediction, a devastating cyber-attack on our infrastructure was now a matter of when, not if.

More primary math, Boeing’s second chance, and DHS mission creep

Steven Brill
Jan 24, 2012 13:50 UTC

1. Time to look at the late primary states and “favorite son” rules:

Two weeks ago, I suggested a story examining how the new rules requiring more proportional representation in awarding Republican primary and caucus delegates might force a deadlocked or brokered convention, because they could prevent even a front-runner like Mitt Romney from arriving in Tampa with the necessary majority of delegates even if he wins an overwhelming majority of the state contests. With it looking likely at least for now that Romney may not even be able to rely on winning most of the primaries and caucuses, the probability that a majority will elude all candidates seems higher.

So it’s time for stories about the rules and the candidates’ prospects in the large states with nominating contests that come after Florida and even after the much-heralded Super Tuesday on Mar. 6. For example, Texas, Maryland and Wisconsin come on Apr. 3 – and will award more than twice the delegates at stake in the four contests held through next week’s Florida primary. New York and Pennsylvania happen on Apr. 24; Indiana, North Carolina and West Virginia are on May 8; and California and New Jersey, among others, are on Jun. 5.

I’m looking for a story that explains, among other things, the rules regarding delegates pledged to one candidate being shifted to another. To take the obvious example, if Rick Santorum builds up even a modest number of delegates that could put someone else over the top, to what extent could he persuade them to move to Gingrich or Romney? (Suppose one of them hints at the vice-presidential spot for him.) If Santorum could deliver delegates to Gingrich, then the notion of him having to drop out to help Newt overcome Romney would be wrong; it would be better to have two anti-Romney flavors out there to choose from for a while.

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