Thursday, August 21, 2008

Model Trustee: David Baldacci, Unionizing PostDocs, and Bobby Jindal

By Richard Vedder

Giving away degrees to powerful people or their relatives seems to be in fashion at third tier universities, a form of academic corruption that hurts all of higher education. Today's INSIDE HIGHER ED reports that David Baldacci, a great novelist, has very strongly and privately complained about the way his alma mater, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) has handled the giving of a degree to the former police chief of Richmond.

I know nothing about the merits of this issue, other than strong internal action should have been taken by VCU to maintain the integrity of the institution. But I like the fact that Baldacci, a trustee of the school, is engaged in the issue, doing what trustees should do --comment on the university's handling of an important matter. The fact that his letter was leaked to the press may be regrettable, but at least he views the trustee role as more than attending a few meetings a year and rubber stamping the administration's recommendations. To be sure, trustees that get involved in day-to-day operations and try to micro manage are exceeding their authority and exercising poor judgment, but on balance trustees need to become more engaged, as my friend Anne Neal constantly tells me.


I read that the United Auto Workers wants to organize post-doctoral students into a union at the University of California. The whole concept of "post docs" is somewhat dubious to me. I think there is a case to be made for researchers to actively engage themselves in their field on an intensive basis after graduation, but the idea that they have an entitlement to a certain type of stipend as a God given right is absurd, and if I were Mark Yudof and running the University of California, I would consider the ramifications of eliminating postdocs as a category of employees. A fellowship should not be related to employment, and, as such, not subject to labor laws, state or federal. If it now comes under those laws, I would eliminate post-docs, period. I would find other ways to encourage intensive research, for example more research leaves for faculty members.

Bobby Jindal is a very unusual governor. First, he is in his thirties. Second, he is an Indian-American, the first one to assume high political office. And third, he appears to be doing a pretty good job of running that political cesspool, the State of Louisiana, a state that once had a governor who boasted that he would have to be caught in bed with a dead girl or live boy to be ousted from office (he did go to prison). Gov. Jindal told LSU he doesn't want the 10 free football tickets offered him. It is, after all, a form of bribery, albeit one that is commonplace in American higher education and one that may be legal in most states. It was a small gesture, but I think a rather nice touch. It also says that there may be more important things in higher education than football, and that maybe LSU should concentrate on being a top public academic university more than a university known for having a few dozen guys good at throwing a ball around.

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