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May 2008

What Business for Bethlehem?

Years after its flagship company - Bethlehem Steel - closed, my city of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is still trying to reinvent itself as something else than the fake tourist magnet it has become, drawing retirees eager to buy Christmas decorations or spend their Social Security checks on slot machines. (The area outside the city itself is very pretty, though, and we have music festivals for all tastes, ranging from Bach to Celtic tunes to pop. Judge for yourself here.) Officials have pursued various strategies to revitalize the area; for instance, the South Side of Bethlehem (past home of Bethlehem Steel, future home of the casino) has been declared a Keystone Innovation Zone, in an attempt to attract new business that would not be dependent on the tourism industry. I don't understand why any company in its right mind would put up with crime on the South Side when it can go to a more pleasant area just down Routes 378 or 22, but apparently the Lehigh Valley offers sizable advantages in financing for companies willing to give it a try. Another much-touted initiative is Wall Street West, an attempt to position the Bethlehem area as a natural choice for backup data centers aimed at companies operating on Wall Street. Recent news coverage, however, suggests that the economic slump has hampered the efforts to attract financial firms (the Pocono Record has an article here, dated April 30, 2008, and the Morning Call here, dated May 25, 2008).

Making Pennsylvania more attractive to business is not just a local affair, although the Lehigh Valley, with its proximity to both New York City and Philadelphia and its cheap rents, presents itself as a natural first choice - if we can't make people come here, they're not going to come to rural Western Pennsylvania (nicknamed Pennsyltucky by the locals) either. In particular, Ben Franklin Technology Partners has been actively "foster[ing] innovation to stimulate Pennsylvania's economic growth and prosperity." More precisely, it "link[s] early-stage technology firms and established manufacturers with funding, people, technology, universities and other resources to help them prosper." It has four regional centers, with Bethlehem at the center of its northeastern area. About ten days ago, the i-xchange event, held at Lehigh University's Zoellner Arts Center, recognized innovation leaders in the area - a welcome bright spot in the economic landscape. In an odd kind of way, the lack of large companies in the area (besides PPL and Air Products) might well motivate local residents develop their entrepreneurial skills and become small-business owners. Whether officials' efforts will lead outsiders to set up shop in the Valley remains to be seen.

The FEED Project

In 2000, start-ups were all the rage, but ever since the dot-com bust, young entrepreneurs have become somewhat a rarity. This makes Lauren Bush's and Ellen Gustafson's endeavor all the more remarkable: they have created and designed a reusable tote bag they sell at Whole Foods, and use the proceeds to feed schoolchildren in Rwanda; the idea is not only to feed children but to incite them to go to school. It's incredible to think that (from the Whole Foods media page) "each bag purchased for $29.99 will help provide 100 nutritious meals to hungry school age children in Rwanda." Bush and Gustafson met when Bush was a honorary spokesperson for the UN World Food Program and Gustafson served as Communications Officer. And yes, Lauren Bush is the niece of the President, but few children or relatives of wealthy people ever bother doing something meaningful, in particular on such a large scale. (Ellen Gustafson is the daughter of H. Robert Gustafson, a senior consultant at Lehigh's Enterprise Systems Center.) Good luck to them!

Science Education

The World Science Festival begins today in New York City (thanks for the pointer, Farzan!) This is the first time I hear about it, and I am very disappointed I won't be able to attend. It seems to have an engaging mix of science-related topics of interest to the general public. This is definitely not a scientific conference - high school students interview a Nobel laureate, theater troupes perform plays about oxygen and Einstein, artists and scientists discuss experiments gone wrong, live performances and state-of-the-art imaging illustrate brain creativity (don't ask), a neuroscientist describes the science behind the Bourne Identity, and so on. This might be exactly what we need to get a broad audience interested in science. One of the headlines on the website's front page explains that the goal of the festival is to "mak[e] the esoteric understandable and the familiar fascinating" and to "spark a movement in which science shifts from the cultural outskirts to the cultural center." The lineup looks certain to draw a large crowd.

Incidentally, the New York Times recently ran an article about a "new curriculum designed to unite art and science" at Binghampton University in New York, called the New Humanities initiative. The article explains: "The students would be introduced to basic scientific tools like statistics and experimental design and to liberal arts staples like the importance of analyzing specific texts or documents closely, identifying their animating ideas and comparing them with the texts of other times or other immortal minds. One goal of the initiative is to demystify science by applying its traditional routines and parlance in nontraditional settings." The example presented in the article, about wolves and nature, doesn't exactly inspire confidence that the graduates of such programs will have any more ease in finding a job than traditional humanities major, but it presents an important step toward graduating a scientifically literate workforce. Not everyone will enter a science career; however, everyone should be able to understand the simple statistics concepts that underlie politicians' proposals and articles in the mainstream press. (It is not a coincidence that one of the professors quoted in the article uses statistics as his main example.)

Lehigh itself has developed a cross-disciplinary program, called the IDEAS program, bringing together arts, science and engineering. Examples of themes (concentrations) in the program can be found here. The program is still in its infancy, making it too early to assess its benefits or flaws, but there is an obvious enthusiasm for this kind of training in higher education throughout the country: Arizona State has a College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences (it includes many familiar departments such as sociology, history, American studies, English, etc, so it remains to be seen whether faculty members in these departments will develop any kind of collaboration with their scientific counterparts), and U. Washington at Tacoma has one too. These programs seem directed to students interested in social sciences - representative statements on the UW website include "Learning how we differ must also help us understand how much we have in common" and "[The program is a] course of study grounded in a respect for diversity and a responsiveness to the needs and desires of the communities and the environment around us." This doesn't sound terribly scientific to me, which suggests "inter-disciplinary studies in arts and sciences" are becoming an empty buzzword already. But maybe someone along the way will be interested in learning math.  

Ethics Scandal at Duke

Duke University has been rocked by an ethics scandal in its biochemistry department, and I learned about it by reading an Indian blog on higher education, of all places (thanks to Abi and his nanopolitan blog for the coverage of this sad affair - read his post dated May 22). The full story, published in Nature, is available for free download in pdf format on the writer's website; I summarize it below. A graduate student, Mary Dwyer, decided to join the lab of Dr. Homme Hellinga at Duke when she was looking for a doctoral adviser, although she was warned against him; their collaboration led to several publications in the prestigious scientific journal Science. (Hellinga studies how amino acids encode function in proteins.) Dwyer graduated in 2004 and moved on to a post-doctoral position in another lab at Duke in 2005. A few years later, a researcher contacted Hellinga and announced he could not duplicate the results. Hellinga then proceeded to accuse Dwyer of scientific misconduct in the Fall of 2007 - in other words, he accused her of falsifying the data in her experiments. Duke, at his request, investigated her. The woman still had the notebooks where she had recorded the data and, while she made mistakes in her experiments (the products she was testing were contaminated; hence, it seemed the enzymes showed activity although they did not), was cleared of scientific misconduct.

Dwyer now says that she had doubts that the project - about redesigning proteins to make them active enzymes - would pan out and warned Hellinga that there was too much variability in the results, but Hellinga rushed her to publish. There are, of course, two sides to every story. It is in Dwyer's interest, if she has any hope of getting a tenure-track position after this debacle - which saw Hellinga withdraw her articles from Science with much publicity - to portray herself as a victim. The Nature article is heavily biased in favor of Dwyer. For the case at hand, it is interesting to note that many students in the biochemistry department at Duke, commenting anonymously in the blogosphere, have confirmed that Hellinga is a first-rate jerk, and Dwyer herself had been advised by students in the lab not to join. Among Hellinga's first twelve graduate students, only two received their PhD. (It is not clear whether the others changed labs or quit graduate school.) While attrition exists in any doctoral program, those statistics suggest Hellinga's advising was lacking in quality. In the end, Dwyer probably made serious but honest mistakes, then let the articles become published despite her concerns. After all, their publication was in her interest, not only to graduate but to get a good position in another lab; she might, however, have hoped they were true somehow, since other researchers were bound to (attempt to) duplicate such high-profile results sooner or later. It doesn't make sense for someone who wants to stay in academia to let papers with dubious findings become published. Dwyer is famous all over the blogosphere now, and not in a good way.

Her most important mistake happened years before she performed the experiments, when she disregarded warnings and decided to work in Hellinga's lab. A lot of graduate students, faced with the prospect of working with a famous but difficult adviser, will convince themselves that other students deserved to get in trouble somehow, and none of this will happen to them. They work hard, they mean well, who wouldn't want to work with them? The truth is, the relationship between advisee and adviser depends not only on the student's motivation but on the professor's character. A professor will not work well with every student. While it's hard for a twenty-two-year-old graduate student to realize this, one would expect a competent, seasoned adviser to stay away from students he feels won't be a good match with him, rather than trying to profit from their intellectual skills despite the mismatch. Hellinga in particular comes across as someone any student in their right mind would run away from as fast as they can. I don't think you can put the blame regarding the experimental mistake solely on him - Dwyer was a senior graduate student by the time she did the experiments, he trusted her to tell him what was wrong - but his behavior once the mistake was uncovered is a disgrace. Dwyer should have been given the benefit of the doubt until Duke had completed its investigation.

Contrast Hellinga's behavior with that of Dalibor Sames, a Columbia University professor who, in 2006, retracted six papers (two in March and four in June), which had been co-authored with a former doctoral student, Bengu Sezen, who, like Mary Dwyer, had left the lab by the time the allegations were made. (However, the six papers co-authored by Ms Sezen span many years.) The New York Times coverage mentions that "The retractions came after the experimental findings of the papers could not be reproduced by other researchers in the same laboratory" and notes that "Columbia has opened an inquiry into why the experiments were not reproducible." The adviser, Dalibor Sames, makes sensible points on the difficulty (embarrassment) of retracting a paper but stays above the fray, leaving it to Columbia to decide whether Ms Sezen acted deliberately. His focus appears to be on science rather than finger-pointing. Unsurprisingly, the former graduate student denies any wrong-doing, explaining that she had not been contacted by the university and knew nothing about the case before the reporter got in touch with her. The reporter notes, however, that "although the reporter's query did not list the three articles in question, Dr. Sezen noted them in her reply" and "a university spokeswoman said Dr. Sames had not received any recent communication from Dr. Sezen, and added, 'She has not acknowledged our recent attempts to reach her.'" After graduating from Columbia with a degree in chemistry, Ms Sezen enrolled in the PhD program in molecular biology at the University of Germany in Heidelberg. Columbia's inquiry appears to have been inconclusive, since there is no information about its findings on the Internet.

This all pales in comparison with the clearly unethical behavior of several other researchers (and yes, already doctors when they committed fraud), described in a January 2007 article in Nature. The cases are so egregious it is hard to single out one or two of them. Jon Sudbo and Jan Hendrik Schoen, for instance, falsified data on a grand scale (the former creating nine hundred fictitious patients in a case study and fabricating data in over thirty papers, the other falsifying data in "only" sixteen papers). I find it hard to understand why anyone would behave like that and not expect to get caught, although it seems it took the scientific community a while to catch on. Unfortunately, there is little incentive for other teams to replicate experiments once the discovery has been announced - they won't be able to take any of the credit. But maybe, in the same way as the National Science Foundation now requires each grantee to include the cost of traveling to the grantees' conference in his or her budget, researchers in experimental science will one day be forced to provide an outside team with the agents and protocol needed to replicate the experiments before results can be published.    

Roosevelt Scholars in Science and Engineering

The Washington Post dated May 23, 2008 has an article about a bill recently introduced in Congress, which would "create graduate-level scholarships for students who commit to public service." These scholarships would be named after Theodore Roosevelt, "the president widely considered to be the father of the modern civil service." The bipartisan bill aims at addressing the impending wave of retirements in the federal government (according to the article, one third of the government's professional and technical employees in the next five years), and would provide up to $60,000 per academic year for each recipient to cover tuition and living expenses, provided the scholar agrees to serve at least three years in government upon graduation (and complete an internship at a federal agency while he or she is still in school).

This is not the first time the public hears about grand plans to improve the state of science and engineering, only to see these plans shelved (see an old post of mine here), so it remains to be seen whether any of this will ever be put in practice. I can't help but wonder whether the best use of scientists and engineers is in public service, and whether there will be enough Americans applying for scholarships to make this a prestigious opportunity. (The bill also targets economists and lawyers.) Shouldn't PhDs in science and engineering work in research labs or in academia, driving innovation? National labs such as Argonne or Los Alamos focus on nuclear engineering, which drastically narrows the range of scientists they attract.

The Internet being what it is, I quickly found the press release, and the text of the bill itself. It turns out that "graduate" means master's, doctoral and law students. This makes the scholarship even more appealing, since Master's student typically do not receive funding from the university they attend, and Americans are often reluctant to take on even more student loans when they graduate from college, tens - if not hundreds - of thousands of dollars in debt. The "mission-critical" occupations in the Federal government are presented in this report; the Department of Commerce, for instance, is recruiting in "information technology (including computer scientists) [and] mathematics/statistics," among other areas, and the Department of Defense needs "logistics management specialists." I was reading the tables at the beginning of the report that summarize the needs per discipline, for instance engineering, across all agencies, and I was struck by the recurrence of "general engineering." Now, few universities actually offer such a degree, but I assume the government wants well-rounded engineers, and it seems that industrial engineers would fit that profile nicely. Unfortunately, industrial engineering suffers from its lack of name recognition, and many managers in government might not be aware of the contributions industrial engineers, with their engineering skills and their business knowledge, could make in public service.

Page.2 of the Post article in its online version also mentions recently introduced legislation that "would offer free education to undergraduates in exchange for their pledge to work for five years in local, state or federal government jobs." Information on what has been named the U.S. Public Service Academy is available here. I was surprised to learn, when I browsed through the website, that the legislation to create the academy was introduced over a year ago, in March 2007 - it seems that this should have received attention in the press earlier. Then I realized that the legislators are not simply talking about paying for college for four years in exchange for a five-year commitment after graduation, but about creating a real school from scratch. Graduates would then work as teachers, park rangers, police officers. (See this page for more details.) Someone should explain to me why legislators can't model the academy on the ROTC model, where students attend a regular school but take additional courses. While the recent example of Olin College shows a top university can be created from scratch and become very successful almost overnight, it is not clear whether the federal government has the stamina to pull that one off.

In the end, the contribution of these bills might be limited to raising the issue of manpower shortage in public service in the collective consciousness. They'll serve as a free advertising campaign, if nothing else.


John Elkann, the young grandson of Giovanni Agnelli (founder of Fiat) who assumed last week the chairmanship of IFIL (the investment firm that controls Fiat), is profiled in the Face Value feature of the Economist in its May 10th edition. He is not the typical Italian: "Born in New York, he spent his childhood in America, France and Brazil." The profile made me smile because of the following sentences: "Mr Elkann is a graduate in industrial engineering, having chosen that subject, he says, because it was more challenging that economics or business, the usual choices of youngsters preparing to take over the family firm. In Italy, where avvocati [lawyers] and dottori [physicians] are thick on the ground, the title of ingegnere [engineer] has greater prestige." Rightly so!


Lehigh's Commencement was held yesterday in Stabler Arena, with the Hooding Ceremony taking place a day earlier at Zoellner Arts Center.

The Hooding Ceremony is the ceremony where the doctoral candidates receive their hood, i.e., the symbol that they've become doctors, from their faculty adviser. (While caps and gowns are either rented or bought, students receive the hoods for free and keep them after the ceremony.) At MIT there were too many doctoral candidates for each adviser to go on stage and hood his or her own student, so it was done by a representative of the school the student was affiliated with, for instance, the School of Engineering, and some of the symbolism of the gesture was lost. I liked Lehigh's ceremony because the number of doctoral candidates is much smaller, so advisers - after making their students work very hard for many years - get to be the ones who reward the students with their hood once the latter have jumped through enough hoops and proved themselves worthy of the title of 'doctor'. I'll post pictures if I get them. The funny part is, a champagne reception was held afterwards, and while I was looking for Gokhan in the crowd, people kept coming up to me and congratulating me. (My reaction: "Thank you! Thank you!") What can I say, I am not going to complain. It's true that I look young, and some of the doctoral candidates were clearly older than me - people don't always go to graduate school straight after college. You can see from the hood whether the person has a Lehigh PhD or not because of its colors, but in the front all hoods for doctor of philosophy degrees have a dark blue velvet trim, so people assume all young-looking people in hoods just got their degree. (The back of the hood is in two colors, which determine the school where the student got his or her PhD. Lehigh's colors are brown and white, MIT's colors are red and light grey.) It's hard to believe I've already been at Lehigh for four years now; in some respects I feel like I've started yesterday. Gokhan entered our doctoral program with a Master of Science already in hand - that meant he had to take less courses to fulfill his degree than students who arrive with only a Bachelor's degree - and he did excellent research, which allowed him to graduate in a short time period. He is now going to become an Operations Research Analyst at American Airlines. Good luck Gokhan!

Yesterday was Commencement, under the rainiest, coldest weather you could think of. (In the words of the President of the Alumni Association addressing the newest alumni: "At least there was no hail.") Fortunately, faculty members sit under a tent, but students got soaked - their diplomas, though, did not, as they are handed in in some kind of plastic wrap that protects them of situations like these. After the singing of the national anthem and words of welcome by the Chairman of the Board of Trustees and President Gast, Meron Mengistu, a doctoral candidate about to receive her PhD in molecular biology, delivered the graduate student remarks in an excellent, inspiring speech about the power of education. She comes from Ethiopia where the dire lack of books makes it very difficult for young children to learn the skills that would allow them to lift themselves from poverty. As Mengistu pointed out, illiteracy is also an major issue in the United States - the numbers I found on the National Center for Education Statistics website indicate that, in 2003, about 11 million Americans struggled with low literacy skills, including 7 million who could not answer simple test questions. While the American mystique emphasizes self-determination (you are responsible for your own destiny, and the like), it is hard to see how anyone can take their fate into their own hands and work for a better future when that person doesn't know how to read. One of the reasons why I found Mengistu's speech so moving  is that domestic adult illiteracy is a cause dear to my heart, as you might have guessed from the "First Book" icon in the left margin of this blog.  First Book is a charity that gives books to children of low-income families. It is rated "gold" by Forbes and "four stars" by Charity Navigator (an independent charity evaluator that analyzes how donations are spent - we all wonder whether the money we give goes to paying the CEO or to helping the charity's target group; because everybody at First Book is a volunteer, every single cent goes toward books for children). Can you believe that a donation of $2.50 buys one book for a needy child? That's not even the price of a latte at Starbucks. As a side note, I encourage everyone to consider giving to First Book. It has been operating for sixteen years now and has just reached the important milestone of 60 million books given out.

After remarks by Matthew Montgomery,  President of the graduating class, William Amelio '79 delivered the Commencement Address. Mr. Amelio is the President and CEO of Lenovo Group, one of the top three PC companies in the world, and the co-founder of Caring for Cambodia. At Lehigh, he majored in chemical engineering and was a member of the wrestling varsity team. (He later earned a Master's degree in management from Stanford.) He started his remarks by telling us the circumstances surrounding Lehigh's decision, back in 1979, not to let him receive his diploma with his class - in March 1979, as he was trying to leave a fraternity party, a bunch of drunk students blocked his path and rocked his car while he was sitting inside. Amelio, tipsy himself and upset by the event, got out of the car and punched one of the kids. In wrestling, he competed in the heavyweight category, and apparently the kid he punched needed a very good dentist afterward. That kid, of course, went straight to the police to file a complaint. Lehigh took action by barring Amelio from attending the graduation ceremony. (It's interesting that the article posted on the Lehigh website only refers to "an altercation after drinking at a party" and doesn't mention that he had been provoked, although obviously that does not excuse punching someone.) Amelio described the anger he felt and how it took him time to learn to forgive and let go - forgive the people who had wronged him, forgive himself for throwing the punch that imperiled his career (he had a job offer at IBM that was conditional on him getting a degree and he was supposed to start right after Commencement), let go of his resentment, move on. I thought that was a powerful story; it even has a happy ending since he came clean in front of the IBM person who had hired him, and that person let him keep his job, although he didn't yet have his degree. (Finally, a real-life story about honesty that ends well.) Amelio also praised his wrestling coach for believing in him throughout the ordeal and seeing potential in him before he saw it in himself. As for Lehigh, it made up for the 1979 ceremony by conferring Amelio an honorary doctor in engineering.

I also appreciated Amelio's willingness to share that, twenty years later when he was working for Larry Bossidy, he received a poor performance evaluation that indicated he was acting in the detriment of the company; for instance, he seemed to have difficulties listening to other people. I liked Amelio's candid remarks about his impulse of denying all this, arguing the 50 colleagues who had been interviewed had all been wrong, before admitting he had a problem. I think what appeals to me in this story that, after the 1979 incident, he did not become a saint overnight. You often hear about teenagers who get involved in horrific crashes causing injury or death after a night of drinking (or who rob banks after becoming gambling addicts), and one of the things parents say to convince the judge to give a mild sentence is that the kid has seen the light and will go to schools to share his experience with other students. But the truth is, a new behavior requires reinforcement until it becomes second nature, and it doesn't necessarily happen overnight. Indeed, it's a bit suspicious if it does. People will fall off the bandwagon. The key is to stop themselves a little sooner every time until they really quit doing whatever harmful thing they were engaged in. Later, Amelio described how he founded Caring for Cambodia with his wife in 2003. Caring for Cambodia is a nonprofit foundation focused on education - a fitting detail in a ceremony that emphasized the honor and privilege of belonging to "the educated ones." (Mengistu quoted Aristotle: "The educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living from the dead.")

I also liked that Amelio took the time to praise Jaclyn Bedford, a finance major and member of the Graduating Class of 2008, who was injured in an horrific ski accident in January and airlifted to the hospital - back then it seemed impossible for her to graduate with her class, but in the end she was able to walk across the stage to get her degree. (In truth, it appears that she hasn't graduated yet, as her name doesn't appear in the list of graduates in the program - this would make sense since she must have spent most of the semester recovering and an accident like that would require her to withdraw from her Spring courses - but Lehigh allowed her to walk with her classmates nonetheless. Certainly a nice gesture, and a testimony to the resilience of a young woman who wasn't even sure to walk again four months ago.)

Finally, in the last talk before degrees were conferred (under cloudy, cold weather with occasional downpours of rain), President Gast gave a short speech, emphasizing - you guessed it - the power of education, which provided a nice lead for the mention of the historical gift to Lehigh from the estate of Donald Stabler' 30: over $34 million will go into a scholarship fund to "provide generations of students [with] the opportunity to attend Lehigh regardless of their financial circumstances." Gast also recognized a few unsung heroes —Meredith Aach, Sean Kessler and Tiffany Searles — of the Class of 2008, not because they were a rarity among their classmates but because they exemplify Lehigh's tradition of service (they will work at places like TeachForAmerica and AmeriCorps after graduation). I thought that showed President Gast's genuine interest in Lehigh's students, which she has demonstrated many times since she came to Bethlehem.

And then of course came the most exciting part - I was so happy to see my students graduate! This was such an important moment for them. They braved the rain in cap and gown, without umbrellas, to receive their well-deserved degree. I can't wait to hear what fantastic things they are all going to do with their lives.

You Just Don't Understand

Remember the dot-com days, when the most egregious business models were floated around, was supposed to be the most fantastic thing invented since electricity, and anyone who questioned the long-term viability of (many) start-up companies was ridiculed as a has-been who just hadn't realized yet times had changed? I was reminded of the atmosphere in 2000 when I read "On the brink", a May 3rd article in The Economist on American newspapers. (As an aside - The Economist has redesigned its website. Check it out!) The move of the Wall Street Journal to allow access to its website's contents by non-subscribers, as well as the decision of the New York Times to get rid of the subscriber-only part of its website called TimesSelect, have been well documented elsewhere, and is supposed to reflect the new viability of a different business model, which relies on advertisers rather than subscribers. But according to the May 3rd article, the circulation of the New York Times went "down another 3.9% in the latest data from America's Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC). Its advertising revenues are down, too (12.5% lower in March than a year earlier), as is the share price of its owner (...) still over 20% below what it was last July."

When I was in Paris, an extremely popular pocket-size magazine in cheap recycled paper was "Pariscope", which detailed the spectacles available in Paris for the week (theater by theater, concert hall by concert hall, movie theater by movie theater with show times). It only costs 2 Francs, which would have been around 40 cents here, but enjoyed mass circulation of the order of several hundred thousands copies sold every week.  When the Internet wave struck, the company of course got a web presence, like every other company worth its name - but nobody bothered paying for Pariscope any more, and I guess the advertisers weren't sold on that "new business model" theory, since Pariscope pulled out of the experiment within a few years of the website's launch.

So is there really a new business model for newspapers out there, or are media executives deluding themselves? I subscribe to The Economist because I don't like reading from the computer for extended periods of time - and I manage to read it from cover to cover. But I recently let my subscription to the New Yorker expire, because reading it was not high priority on my to-do list, and as much as I did like the profiles, I often found myself staring at a pile of unread New Yorker's by my couch, while the content is available for free on the Internet and doesn't take any space in my living-room. And no, I don't even look at the advertisements. Maybe not incidentally, The New Yorker has increased its retail price quite a bit over the last few years, now selling at $4.99 in newsstands. (For a very long time, it did not post its contents on the web, and while making the issues accessible for free will certainly boost the number of visitors to the website, I don't see how it is going to bring The New Yorker - with its distinct image and its lack of competitors, one of the few magazines that could afford "doing it its way" - much more money. How many people do actually click on an advertisement?) All the talk about increased advertising revenue overshadowing the loss in subscriptions sounds empty when you read "Ad revenues are plunging across the board: by 22.3% at Media General, for example. In 2007 total newspaper revenues fell to $42.2 billion (...) a lot less than the peak of $48.7 billion in 2000." It feels like the move to an online presence has locked many members of the American media into a death spiral. 

On Teamwork and Twenty-Three-Year-Olds

Today was the final project presentation, in front of the industry sponsor, of the capstone project for the Master of Science in Analytical Finance, which I supervised. About twelve students worked on the project throughout the academic year and did a superb job addressing the challenge first identified by the executives in October. I had never been in charge of a group that large before, and the experience provided some fascinating insights (some more positive than others) into team dynamics.

There were, broadly speaking, three kinds of people involved in the project. The first one was made of the leaders - those students who took an active role in determining the approaches the group would analyze, made exceptional contributions to the report, stayed late on Friday evening to prepare the slides, rehearsed yesterday afternoon, dotted the i's and crossed the t's - because the executives were not available last week, the presentation was scheduled after the grades were given to the Registrar's Office, and the students worked countless hours, when it had no longer any effect on their grade, to make sure the presentation and report would be flawless, on the grounds that the quality of their deliverables would affect what the industry sponsor thought about Lehigh University. That's professionalism right there. As an educator, it is always gratifying to interact with students who are so obviously going to "go places" in life, even if I can't pretend I played any role in them turning out that way. They were trustworthy, professional and highly competent when they entered the Master's program, and they remained trustworthy, professional and highly competent throughout. Congratulations to, in alphabetical order, Rahmi Erdem Aktug, Renee Garin, Tracey Sandor and Jonathan Tillson for their extraordinary performance. (Regarding a different capstone project, Nicholas Wagner and Mengyuan Zhao did excellent work as well.)

Then you have the followers, who are just as trustworthy, but take a less active role, sometimes because they come to analytical finance from a non-finance background and have so much to learn that they don't gain the confidence to contribute actively until the very end of the school year, or because they are not native English speakers and are reluctant to express themselves during meetings (but will instead do a large part of the numerical implementation, for instance). Followers might become leaders later on. Not everyone can be a leader, and not everyone can be a leader all the time. Team players who do the tasks they've been assigned without going off-track play a critical role in the overall team success.

Finally, you have the slackers. I have to admit there were a few of those. The slackers try to do as little as possible and don't bother coming to the final presentation. My advising style was quite hands-off - we met once a week, but I tried to let the group come up with its own solutions to the executives' problems rather than imposing the directions I felt were most interesting, because I believe people learn more, and work more, if they have a sense of ownership of the solution. Sadly, slackers thrive off that environment as much as leaders do. They take pains not to volunteer for anything, and hope that someone else's output will hide the fact that they personally did not contribute a line.

After seeing the hard work some of the students put in on Friday evening to prepare the presentation (I bought them Domino's pizzas to cheer them up - I was there until 9.30pm editing the final report, and some stayed until 11pm), in sharp contrast with the lack of contributions of some of their classmates, I thought some more about the distinction between leaders and slackers over the weekend. For instance, I felt it was very unprofessional for students not to show up for the final presentation. This was supposed to be a group project, and while it was quite clear the executives would be pleased with the recommendations, you should stand by your classmates and show support for the rest of the group no matter what. You do not let them facing executives while you're off enjoying your first week of vacation. (Finals ended last week.)

At the same time, whenever my undergraduates do something stupid, my first reaction is always to hope they'll see the light once they are in the workforce. (And then I take action.) Companies don't generally give second chances to employees who appear untrustworthy. People who are unprofessional in college will have to pay the consequences once they work - they might think they'll change when they get a paycheck, but it's like trying to run a marathon when your only exercise is walking from your car to your office - of course you can start running, but you're not going to go very far. Professionalism is not something you develop when you're under pressure and faced with six different deadlines. It has to be acquired beforehand. Either students understand that character matters before they start working, or their first job won't be a very happy time in their life. (Thankfully, it probably won't last very long either.)

My general philosophy with graduate students when they do something stupid, though, is that they should know better. I don't forgive them much. Now this raises a contradiction, since many (although not all) graduate students go straight from college to graduate school, without entering the workforce except for internships. Once they are Master's or doctoral students, students take fewer courses and focus on research, but most meet with their adviser about once a week, without the daily interaction with higher-ups that occurs in the workforce. In a way, they're mostly left to their own devices. So when are they supposed to learn about professionalism if they don't already know that stuff? Of course we teach them about Integrity: we all say it is wrong to cheat, cheaters will face disciplinary sanctions, and so on. Each test reminds the students of that point. But there are fewer opportunities to teach professionalism (more of a gray zone, while integrity is black or white: you either cheat or you don't), most of which are provided by team projects. When students are undergraduates, it is vaguely admissible - although undesirable - if they aren't always professional (if they let their teammate do his work and theirs, disappear before the project is due, etc); kids will be kids and at some point they'll grow up. But those who haven't grown up by the time they enter graduate school - those who still think it's all about the grade and they'll be fine as long as they steal an A or B - are in for a surprise. The only people they are fooling are themselves, and nobody has ever achieved anything worthwhile in life with that kind of attitude. I just don't know how to break them the news.