SMU Commencement Weekend, Part 2 - Panel Discussion

Francis-S-CollinsIn the symposium given at SMU in honor of NIH Director Francis S. Collins, our 2017 Commencement Speaker and honorary degree recipient, Dr. Collins discussed 10 exceptional opportunities in biomedical research that might come to fruition within ten years.

Before going over his top 10 list, he pointed out that N.I.H.'s mission is to both "seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems" as well as "the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability, and remarked that Texas received over $1bn in FY16. He also discussed statistics that suggest N.I.H. money has been rather well spent: (a) cancer death rates are now falling more than 1% per year, while each 1% drop saves $500bn. (b) cardiovascular disease death rates have fallen more than 70% in the last 60 years, and (c) HIV therapies now enable people in their 20s to live to age 70+.

On to his list of 10 exceptional opportunities. In ten years, we might have:

  1. advanced our analysis of individual human cells, which will help understand many disorders like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis,
  2. developed tools to identify new brain cell types and circuits, to help diagnosis, treatment and prevention of autism,
  3. identified those at risk for Alzheimer's before signs appear. Dr. Collins showed brain cells of six members of a family in South America known to be at risk of hereditary Alzheimer's, 4 with the amyloid gene carriers and 2 without, the six members are in the 35-39 range and Alzheimer's in their family has tended to have onset when people reached their 40s, and those brain scans showing the amyloid build-up in the 4 people at risk were breathtaking - Dr. Collins also mentioned that a possible reason why Alzheimer's treatments may not have been successful so far is that such treatments may have targeted people whose disease was too far advanced, but there is real hope if we are able to take action before the onset of symptoms. This is critical because the amount of money required to take care of the growing Alzheimer's population by 2050 will be equivalent to two Department of Defense budgets if we don't do anything.
  4. developed effective treatment for spinal cord injuries.
  5. optimized and widely distributed an artificial pancreas for diabetes. This is actually not that far in the distance since the FDA approved in September 2016 the first hybrid closed-loop system to track changes in blood glucose levels and provide precise doses of insulin.
  6. generated new organs from induced pluripotent stem cells.
  7. created a universal influenza vaccine. The idea is to teach the immune system to attack the invariant stem of the virus (instead of the head, which varies from year to year), in order to provide immunity to all flu viruses. We are overdue for a worldwide flu pandemic, so a universal influenza vaccine would be critical in mitigating such a pandemic's consequences. 
  8. deployed genomics, neuroscience, structural biology to uncover new targets for treatment of pain. The U.S. are in the middle of an opioid overdose epidemic, and 80% of people who ODed got started with a legitimate prescription for pain treatment, and some of those then switched to heroin, which apparently is very cheap, when OxyContin or similar was no longer readily available. (The prescription for the pain medication may be for 30 days, but people might feel very lousy when they stop, so they try to continue a little while longer, and when they really can't get a prescription renewal, those who are addicted switch to heroin.) There is a critical need to develop non-addictive pain medicine.   
  9. accelerated immunotherapy and other advances through the Cancer Moonshot. Dr. Collins discussed the case of Emily Whitehead in PA, who had a type of childhood cancer for whom traditional treatments had not worked, and who was saved thanks to immunotherapy.  
  10. actualized the potential of precision medicine through the "All of Us" research program, which aims at enrolling 1m Americans for a long-term research study combining data science, genomics, Electronic Health Records, technologies and patient partnerships. You can learn more about it at

Gene editing, which could have made the top 10 list, was discussed in the Q&A. 

Additional topics discussed in the Q&A were (I wish I could provide details on all of them, but this post is already long enough):

  • the WaPo op-ed by Eric Lander of the Broad Institute and Eric Schmidt of Google "America's "Miracle Machine" is in desperate need of a miracle"
  • Dr. Collins's meeting at the White House two weeks ago with senior WH officials and heads of industry and academia to discuss how to best foster a productive relationship between government agencies, corporations and universities regarding scientific research (following by a short meeting with the President afterward), and especially NIH's Accelerating Medicines Partnership, which was launched in February 2014 with the goal to "transform the current model for developing new diagnostics and treatments by jointly identifying and validating promising biological targets for therapeutics" in 3 disease areas: Alzheimer's disease, type 2 diabetes and autoimmune disorders (lupus and rheumatoid arthritis). Dr. Collins also mentioned Parkinson's as a current focus, and said that cancer might get added soon. 
  • the need for an interdisciplinary approach to many of those problems, and the potential of computational biology. 
  • the issue that over 60% of drugs now coming on the market first originated from academic research - why should N.I.H. fund this work if big pharma reaps the rewards? Dr. Collins talked about the National Center for Advancing Translational Science established in 2012 and the role of the Bayh-Dole Act in encouraging universities to file for patents, which also means that the N.I.H. holds no claims to those discoveries. 
  • drug pricing, which the N.I.H. has no role in.
  • the issue of drug-resistant bacteria, when a drug can take 12 years to be developed and a bacteria can take 2 years to become drug-resistant, the related need to limit the prescription of antibiotics, and the fact that biopharma can make a lot more money developing, say, cancer drugs.
  • Dr. Collins's book on "The Language of God" and his personal faith. He said he still gets emails almost every week, especially from young Christian students, who have been homeschooled and then are presented with the evidence for evolution in their first biology course in college and suddenly put their faith back in question. He said he wasn't a believer in college, only became at 27 in medical school, and insisted that science and faith aren't mutually exclusive.
  • diabetes. 80m people in the U.S. are pre-diabetic, but diet and exercise with a coach has been proved to lead to a 58% reduction in transition rates to the diabetic stage. There are data privacy issues because it is generally agreed that you should not have your genome used against you for jobs and health insurance. Interestingly, a bill about wellness programs currently under consideration could threaten that because some of those programs ask for DNA analysis and if you refuse, they're allowed to charge you a premium that is 30% higher than the premium if you had accepted.
  • the need to do healthcare more efficiently, since about 30% may be wasted now due to improper testing etc.
  • the future of healthcare, about which Dr. Collins mostly said (as a response to an audience question) that his crystal ball was rather cloudy, and that most people agree that kids who get sick should be able to get health care.       
  • The Q&A ended with the question about science funding, which was the topic of my previous post.

You can read SMU's release about N.I.H. Director Francis S. Collins being chosen as 2017 Commencement Speaker here. It is so exciting for SMU but also speaks volumes of its national reputation that we were able to attract such a high-caliber speaker to Dallas. I feel really blessed to have heard Dr. Collins give such an informative talk at the symposium and am looking forward to his Commencement speech tomorrow.  

SMU Commencement Weekend, Part 1 - Funding Scientific Research

Francis-S-CollinsNIH has some groundbreaking ideas to transform science in academia. Read more to learn why. First, the background: tomorrow is Commencement at SMU and NIH Director Francis S. Collins will deliver the Commencement address as well as receive a Honorary Doctor of Science. Three other outstanding individuals will also receive honorary degrees - astrophysicist Francis Halzen of UW-Madison, arts philanthropist Nancy Nasher and New Testament scholar E.P. Sanders (read more about them here). Yesterday and today at SMU saw several remarkable events featuring those awardees.

For this post, I want to focus on the last one, which was a panel discussion involving NIH Director Francis S. Collins, SMU Provost Steven Currall, SMU Professor Pia Vogel and UT Southwestern Medical Center President Daniel Podolsky. Dr. Collins made a presentation about science discoveries that he hopes will happen within 10 years, and then took part in the panel discussion, and finally took questions for the audience. The most interesting one was the last one, about the funding of academic research in science.

Dr. Collins cited a 2014 New York Times op-ed by Andy Harris, Young, Brilliant and Underfunded, that pointed out that most of the Nobel Prize winners and other notable scientists came up with their breakthrough ideas between the age of 35 and 39, "yet the median age of first-time recipients of R01 grants, the most common and sought-after form of N.I.H. funding is 42 while the median age of all recipients is 52. More people over 65 are funded with research grants than those under age 35." 

This was after a comment by Dr. Collins about the N.I.H. having gotten better at funding early-career researchers by putting them in their own, separate pool if they have never received N.I.H. funding before, but not better at funding mid-career researchers, who report getting "squeezed". The aging of science's principal academic investigators is also problematic for the long-term vigor of the field. 

This helps put his next remark in context: according to Dr Collins, recent data suggests the productivity of a N.I.H. principal investigator begins to drop after the third concurrent grant, and that if rules were put in place that reassign funding dollars from those 4th or more concurrent grants, N.I.H. would be able to make 900 extra grants to early- and mid-career researchers (I suppose those grant amounts would be smaller than the grants of the "big shots" but he did not discuss that). He made it clear that they would be for grant proposals that fell just short of funding under the present rules - grant proposals that deserved funding but could not be funded due to insufficient funds.

The other transformative concept Dr. Collins talked about was of "early-independence awards" to help young PhDs skip post-docs and get them "unleashed" earlier, so that they can be creative and make independent groundbreaking discoveries earlier. Not everybody needs a post-doc. What I found most staggering about it is that the fields of engineering and management, where you did not use to need a post-doc to get a faculty position, have slowly become so risk-averse (reluctant to hire just-graduated PhDs in case they don't manage to become independent) that they have aligned themselves more and more on science and now it is quite usual to do a post-doc before obtaining a faculty position, and now that science has led us into a three-stage academic model of PhD/post-doc/faculty position, it is moving away from that. So maybe engineering and management will return to their old ways too.

I think it is particularly welcome for science to develop ways to bypass postdocs because faculty members in science often have lower pay than their colleagues in management or engineering, in addition to often having longer time-to-completion in the PhD program, so they can't easily make up for their lost wages once they are on the faculty. Some even take 1 or 2 years before they apply to PhD programs to work as lab techs (when they plan to go into experimental fields). Others take 2 postdocs before they go on to faculty positions.

All in all we are looking at talented scientists who, in the current model, first become independent Assistant Professors around the age of 35, which is (1) really late to start giving some stability to scientists, and can help explain why many prefer careers outside academia, (2) the low end of the 35-39 age window for the breakthrough discoveries by Nobel Prize winners or equivalent discussed above. You can't really expect brand new Assistant Professors to make that level of discoveries within months of their first faculty position. And of course not everyone will end up a Nobel Prize winner or equivalent, but that's not a reason to needlessly discourage people from staying in academia. There is a case to be made that the thinkers most capable of transformative innovation aren't necessarily always the ones well-established research behemoths but may well be, sometimes, researchers at less well-established institutions. Their ideas deserve to be given a chance too.

My next post will summarize the rest of the panel discussion.

The Problem is Not With the Graduates (Beware of the Sirens)

Commencement season is upon us, which means that the "You're not special" book, authored by the son and namesake of historian David McCullough (son who probably would never have been asked to deliver any Commencement speech if he hadn't had such an illustrious father) is once again gracing the displays at most bookstores. It's apparently not a popular book, although I suppose it is more popular with the buyers than with the intended recipients of the book. I once read somewhere that TV series about high school aren't aimed at high school students but people whose high school years weren't as happy or successful as they had hoped, and I suppose a lot of the Commencement literature at Barnes & Noble is really aimed at older adults who wish they'd been given better advice when they graduated. 

It seems like people love to complain about Millenials' entitlement these days. I've had many Millenials in my classes, both at Lehigh and at SMU, and they all cared about learning material that would help them distinguish themselves in the workforce. That was our unspoken contract, at least in an engineering college: I'm going to do my best to teach you things that will help you set you apart once you're in the workforce, and you'll do your best answering my homework problems. I've never found my students entitled, and by now we're talking about several hundreds of undergraduates and Master's students. 

But I also moved to Dallas last summer and it didn't take me long to realize there were plenty of entitled young adults in the world (at least in the U.S.) In Uptown Dallas, you see (which is a feeder for the University Park neighborhood where SMU is located, with an excellent public school system separate from the Dallas schools), the dream of just about every 25-year-old native Dallasite seems to find a man who will earn a good living so that she can spend her life getting blowouts and manicures. Those 25-year-olds are the Americans non-Americans think about when they imagine Americans to be shallow and self-centered. I also attend public events at SMU where the local community (meaning University Park, for the most part, but with views expressed by elderly people who are more thoughtful and eloquent than average, and very outspoken American patriots) spoke powerfully about the sort of America they wanted to live in, which is not aligned with the degradation of civil discourse we have observed under President Trump. Dallas might be a conservative city (although that's open to debate), but it knows what it stands for, and degradation of women and immigrants isn't part of the plan.  

The problem, I think, is really with the 25-year-olds. At the "100 days of the Trump presidency" event, the audience (largely elderly, except for a few outliers like me) came out quite vocally in favor of a principled America whose President shows profound respect for the office. I was surprised audience members were not more willing to rubber-stamp  all the policies coming out of the Oval Office at the moment. If it doesn't happen in Dallas, in which big city is it going to happen? But the elderly people in Dallas show respect and have manners. The 25-year-olds behave as if they are owed success or (for the women) at least a good husband impressed by the beauty of their curls, courtesy of the local hair salon. 

I could go on the topic forever, but to keep the post of manageable length, I'll stick to the 25-year-olds in Dallas, who once were 20-year-olds, probably at SMU, where they were thoughtful and kind and held the door open for their professors with an assiduity I've never found elsewhere. The problem, as I see it, is really with what happens after graduation, when young adults slip away from the mentoring of their parents and teachers old enough to be their parents, and focus on impressing their friends with non-existing job status or prestige. Young adults don't want to wait to come up through the ranks anymore because their friends boast fancy titles, whether deserved or not, and they want the same. They become very shallow individuals, living in apartments co-signed by their parents so that they can impress their friends, driving leased cars so that they can show off in front of their fellow drivers. Maybe they were shallow all along, I don't kn0w - I suppose the most likely victims were the people who were most susceptible to it, the ones worried about not wearing the right clothes, not getting the right job offer.

Many young adults these days don't really want to feel successful. They do when they graduate from college, but it doesn't last long. Many young adults these days, in fact, want to feel envied. That's what happens when they lose the connection with their elders (parents, teachers and mentors) and focus only on the other young adults around them. And I don't think it's an issue with the students politely listening to graduation speeches, although it is always entertaining to listen to people who haven't accomplished anything in life debate about the worthiness of this or that Commencement speaker, when the school has to deviate from household names. (This is not the case at SMU's Commencement this year. The NIH Director will deliver the address. This is not a read on SMU specifically. SMU, in fact, has gone out of its way to instill a strong sense of ethics into its graduates.)

So what message is appropriate for most graduates, knowing how their peers turned out when they were just a little older? Beware of the sirens. That will perhaps be the title of my book, if I write a book about this. They don't want to wait anymore. They don't want to learn in the shadows. But sometimes the siren song of who they (we?) hope they are meant to become does them more harm than good. It's as if 25-year-olds had been told too often they should behave "as if" (meaning: as if they'd already become successful), and then they wonder why they seem so offputting to everyone. Although perhaps they are not off putting to the native Dallasites, since that's how they've been conditioned to be.

But if I were to offer some words of advice to the graduates, I would say: keep track of how you are behaving. Make sure you're not annoying the person you mean to impress. Anyone with a bit of experience in the workforce has learned to distinguish the "real deal" from the hot air. You can curl your hair just right and sport a designer's brand of aviator sunglasses, but that still doesn't mean you're going to get the life you want - even if your daddy threatens to sue the awful people who don't do your bidding.

And the real problem is why so many parents in America these days feel the need to live vicariously through their children - why their life wasn't enough, why they need to see their kids' lives as an extension of their own to feel vindicated - but that has no place in Commencement speeches.         


Back in October 2015, MIT launched a new credential called MicroMaster, "which enables online learners to take a semester’s worth of master’s-level courses on the edX platform, then complete a master’s degree in a single full semester on campus at MIT" (quoted from this MIT news release). Success metrics are difficult to define - the article states that, for MIT's first MicroMaster in supply chain management, "over 127,000 students have enrolled in at least one course — including representation from 189 countries — and more than 7,000 have signed up for verified ID certificates in at least one course" and qualifies that of "incredible success", but many students who enroll in M.O.O.C.s never complete the course, even when they sign up for verified ID certificate. Yet, it is clear there is significant interest, and the program is an innovative way to help students get a taste of Masters' level course as well as reducing the tuition cost, for students willing to forgo the campus experience for one semester. Making graduate education more affordable also helps create a more skilled workforce. Interestingly, MIT's MicroMaster in supply chain management offers a path to a degree not only at MIT but also at several other participating universities.  

Other universities offering online MicroMasters include Columbia (Business Analytics), UC San Diego (Data Science), University of Adelaide (Big Data), Georgia Tech (Analytics: Essential Tools and Methods), RWTH/Aachen University (Managing Technology and Innovation), University of Maryland (Cloud Computing), Thunderbird (International Business Management) and more. I'd be curious to see how the various MicroMasters offering analytics MicroMasters under one name or another fare given the intense competition in the field. (You can see the full list of MicroMasters here.)

NPR also ran an interesting article on MIT's MicroMaster a few weeks ago. You can read it here

I like the idea of blended learning to make degrees more affordable and help students get a credential even if they decide not to go for the full Master, but I feel it will always be hard for online courses to hold their own against on-campus courses if students don't have the opportunity to ask questions and interact with their classmates the way they do in an on-campus setting. So the value is purely going to be cost-based, and if students make it to campus, they may find that some students who have pursued their Master on-campus all along might view them as "second-tier" and might question their accomplishments in passing the course.

Unfortunately, it is a valid question, although I haven't seen much discussion about this. I teach analytics to Master's students this semester and I am using the Analytics Edge textbook by Bertsimas, O'Hair and Pulleyblank, which is also used in the highly popular MITx course of the same name. It turns out, a non-negligible number of students who took the MITx course posted their answers online in places like github or Rpubs. I'm not sure what they were trying to achieve - perhaps they hope a prospective employer will be impressed by their skills in R, or perhaps they want to help everybody else cheat - but as online courses take on popularity, and students try to gain attention of employers, this issue will only rise in importance. 

Most of my students take pains in writing their own solutions to the assignments, but they're Master's students who will have the name and prestige of SMU on their degree and genuinely want to learn, so the pressure for them is not the same as for someone who tries to get a foothold in the analytics sphere without yet having a formal credential. Many of the MicroMasters offered by edX are about analytics or computer science. Honor codes aren't going to be enough. The issue of cheating - or, more broadly, the use of online help to obtain course credit or a formal degree credential - will have to be addressed, since cheaters obviously risk hurting the reputation of a degree program or may prove themselves incompetent when they arrive on campus. Of course, replacing exercises every time a course is offered would be a good step, although I'm not sure if any textbook will have enough exercises to make this sustainable in the long run. And even if the exercises are new, students can still resort to professional services where people will be happy to do their homework for them for a fee, as described in an August 2016 article in The Chronicle of Higher Ed ("The New Cheating Economy").  

Because of this, I think higher education today is moving toward a model where course grades for the semester will be determined by proctored, in-class exams, and assignments will be posted as study guides but won't be graded. (Interestingly, that was the model my engineering school followed when I was in college.) Obviously you can't proctor the 7,000 students who enrolled in a verified certificate for a course of MITx's MicroMaster in Supply Chain Management. But something has to be done. Perhaps students who want to enroll in a Master's program after a MicroMaster should be made to pass an entrance exam first. This way they would be tested on the competences they are supposed to have acquired in the MicroMaster. The number of students who make it to campus would be constrained by classroom size and the like - MIT has said it expects to enroll about 40 students a year in the blended program - and so hopefully that number would be manageable enough to administer such an exam. As competition intensifies for good jobs in, for instance, analytics (I've heard that there are so many programs in analytics these days that many companies with open positions get deluged with applications of recent or soon-to-be grads), more students might be tempted to cheat to gain credentials and more students who don't cheat might be tempted to belittle MicroMasters to sell themselves to employers as holders of a "real" Master's degree. Universities that don't think it's going to get ugly are kidding themselves.

Is Peter Thiel disrupting college?

PeterThielNewsweek So Peter Thiel is on the cover of Newsweek for his Thiel Fellowship program where he pays about 25 fellows to skip college, and for obvious reasons of scale this remains as far from disrupting college as it was several years ago when the program was first announced, but it points at important weaknesses of today's higher education system, and for that reason it is worth keeping Thiel's program in the news.

The fact is, a lot of universities say they value both research and teaching, but few research universities value underclassman teaching. (Obviously not all universities are research universities.) While tuition covers on average about half of the operating costs, the research money makes for an appealing additional stream of income, and offers good P.R. opportunities for successful projects. People who earn a PhD have been trained to be good researchers but not necessarily good teachers, and while they hopefully self-select for an academic path due to their interest in teaching, some also choose that path to work on their own research projects with great flexibility, only minimal oversight and an inflated sense of how often their papers are going to be read.

In France (where I went to college), professors are much more teachers than researchers, and that was reflected on their lower pay and the lesser prestige of their positions. There are clear incentives in being viewed as a researcher rather than a teacher, which don't help with tuition costs (because fewer classes to teach so that faculty has time to do research means more manpower is needed, whether as tenured/tenure-track faculty or adjuncts, although the growth in tuition costs has many factors including administrative bloat).

In the worst-case scenario, researchers don't care about teaching and receive tenure because they bring in a lot of research dollars. In a reasonable middle-of-the-road scenario, researchers care about teaching in their area of expertise, where their skill set brings the most added value to the classroom. This rarely includes underclassmen - students with fresh ideas, excited about coming to college, who haven't even declared a major yet. (Teaching students who are not in one's major is often viewed as academic purgatory. Even supposedly smart adults can be so cliquish.)

Those students are supposed to wait patiently until they have learned enough to hopefully make a difference, by which time they might have begun to wonder what the big hoopla about college was all about. Certainly, everyone has to know the basics of his or her field before he or she can make a meaningful contribution, but many of the required courses of freshman or sophomore year are of the "you can't call yourself an engineer if you haven't taken thermodynamics or calculus I" variety, without a clear explanation of how it is going to be useful, and all the energy and fresh thinking a student could have brought shrivels unused.

A favorite saying in universities has become "We teach them how to think", as opposed to teaching students skills they can use in the workforce. The reasoning is that the skill set may change, but if students know how to think and learn by themselves, they will be able to adapt. It is a good point in theory, but in practice it is often used as a cop-out for some professors to avoid updating what they teach. (If you already taught them how to think twenty years ago, then why should you update your slides on, say, inventory theory from twenty years ago?) 

I like Thiel's idea because it builds on the enthusiasm of many students when they graduate from high school (although the program itself is too small to impact higher education, but at least it helps students who have become so bored with college they would have dropped out) and because it offers close advising opportunities with successful professionals. I do disagree with the idea that the right alternative to college is to start a company, but at least it is clear where to look for individuals who can advise the students in that case: successful entrepreneurs.

Young graduates have become so obsessed with mentors, sponsors and advisors because they feel left to their own devices in a professional world where they or their bosses might change companies after a year. This is also reflected in the number of applications for YCombinator and its media coverage. (The Launchpad provides a great glimpse into how the company operates.) I'm not sure if college students have the same drive to find mentors, and those who don't want to become professors may not see the point in finding a mentor among their teachers, except if they hope for a recommendation for graduate school. It is telling that you have to wait until postdoctoral fellowship for your boss - the director of your research lab - to be formally called your mentor: this is the only time in academia where the job of your direct supervisor is most aligned with the job you are training for, since many PhD students before the post-doc stage may go to non-research jobs in industry.

But having a professor as an advisor/mentor provides a unique opportunity to receive guidance from someone with understanding of the career path the student seeks for himself and no emotional or financial involvement in the student's success, unlike parents or entrepreneurs who fund a startup in exchange for a cut of the profits. While the whole idea is to find someone who has been in the position the student is in now and has succeeded through the challenge, people who choose academic careers might be more inclined, personality-wise, to help others find success (although this is painting the situation in broad strokes, they tend to find satisfaction in the success of people they have trained), while people in industry might be a little more driven by a sense of personal accomplishment and less interested in giving back to their professional community until they are much older. In many universities, though, the lines are blurring now with the increased emphasis of research - an individual accomplishment, or a group accomplishment outside the classroom and with enough prestige bestowed on the head of the research lab. This leaves underclassmen with even fewer opportunities for guidance and advice. And not every underclassman will want guidance and advice - many might want to be left alone, after years of being monitored by their parents - but college represents a unique time where students can forge long-lasting relationships with adults who don't have a direct stake in their success.

Of course, students can join plenty of extracurricular clubs and keep themselves busy if they find their classroom experience lacking, but the "breadth" model of education, where you collect a lot of skills in a shallow manner to earn the right of call yourself a well-rounded individual, is becoming outdated. What you need to become competitive nowadays is to have a deep skill set. Universities like to think that skill set is gained through a Master's degree, since that amounts to six years of tuition (four for college and two for the Master's, although not necessarily from the same people) instead of four, and that will be true for some people, in addition to being critically important for innovation in science and engineering. (William Hewlett did graduate with a Bachelor's from Stanford, a Master's from MIT and an Electrical Engineer from Stanford, which basically means he dropped out of the PhD program - not college - to start HP with David Packard, also a Stanford grad.) 

But making it more expensive and lengthy to complete one's education is only going to further shut out segments of the population who could make great contributions to the workforce. There needs to be college options for students who want to learn skills more directly applicable to the workforce. This is when certain professors start spitting out the words "vocational training" as something beneath them. But what Thiel is doing is also vocational training, and no one would think of condescending to his fellows. 

Higher ed at the undergraduate level needs more coordination between courses to make them an integral part of a semester-long project, where students would better see how the different components they learn fit together, (for engineering students) from calculus to ethics courses on the implications of the decisions they make. Projects require project advisors, and that would provide the close interactions with faculty so beneficial for students, even at the underclassman level. (Research experiences for undergraduates are becoming somewhat more popular, but they are insufficient if every student is to become more innovative and creative.) 

The fragmentation of the curriculum puzzles me to no end. Everyone is in charge for a tiny part of the puzzle every semester - and which part often varies from semester to semester - and you just have to hope that with time the pieces don't stop fitting with each other, when instructors make changes to course content without consulting with their colleagues. The one attempt at integration is the capstone project in the fall or spring semester of senior year, but even then there is little involvement of (help by) the faculty members not in charge of supervising the capstone, even when their expertise is more aligned with the project content than the faculty in charge. It would make more sense to use such projects as teaching tools, maybe assign each faculty member a small number of projects to closely supervise, and have them run for longer time periods so that students learn the concepts with an eye on their project. A project-based curriculum is actually the model of Olin College in Massachusetts, and with an admission rate of only 8.8% in 2016, it looks like this model resonates with quite a few students.

I like Olin as a way to bridge Thiel's ideas with the reality of higher ed today but Olin has been around for 15 years now and if universities truly viewed it as the way of the future, more of them would have aligned themselves with its teaching model instead of paying lip service to doing research with undergraduates. You just have to observe the outcry from the University of Houston when the chancellor of the University of Texas system suggested a new campus for UT in Houston (he was ultimately forced to scuttle the plan, more on that some other day) to see how quick universities are at taking action when they feel their interests are threatened. So neither Thiel nor Olin has disrupted higher education yet, but they have brought valuable new options to the higher ed landscape, and perhaps that's good enough. 

NYT on America's Great Working-Class Colleges

NYTSundayReviewDavid Leonhardt, who gave the Tate Lecture at SMU back in November, wrote an interesting op-ed in this past Sunday's New York Times, using a recent study that tracked students from nearly every college in the country and measured their earnings after they left campus. He argues that such colleges continue to do a strong job pushing students into the middle class and beyond, in spite of a challenging environment marked by state budget cuts, more unprepared students and high dropout rate.

He provides the following statistics, among others:

  • Among people born in 1980 who attended the City University of New York, 30% of the students were in the bottom 20% of the income distribution as children, but only 14% were at that bottom 20% as adults. 
  • "At City College, in Manhattan, 76 percent of students who enrolled in the late 1990s and came from families in the bottom fifth of the income distribution have ended up in the top three-fifths of the distribution."
  • "The equivalent number at the University of Texas, El Paso, is 71 percent. At California State University in Bakersfield, it’s 81 percent. At Stony Brook University, on Long Island, it’s 78 percent, and at Baruch College in Manhattan, it’s 79 percent."

For fun, the NYT has an interactive page where you can learn about the upward mobility at any college. For instance (I'm not sure what to make of the fact that exactly 67% of the students from Harvard, Lehigh and SMU come the top 20 percent, so the results are to be taken with a grain of salt),

  • "The median family income of a student from Harvard is $168,800, and 67% come from the top 20 percent. About 1.8% of students at Harvard came from a poor family but became a rich adult.
  • "The median family income of a student from Lehigh is $167,600, and 67% come from the top 20 percent. About 1.9% of students at Lehigh came from a poor family but became a rich adult."
  • "The median family income of a student from Southern Methodist is $198,900, and 67% come from the top 20 percent. About 1.8% of students at Southern Methodist came from a poor family but became a rich adult."
  • "The median family income of a student from University of Texas at Dallas is $89,800, and 40% come from the top 20 percent. About 2.4% of students at University of Texas at Dallas came from a poor family but became a rich adult."

Many students on what Leonhardt calls working-class college campuses don't resemble the typical Ivy League student. There, "students often work while they’re going to college. Some are military veterans, others learned English as a second language and others are in their mid-20s or 30s." OpenIDEO recently had a challenge about higher education, entitled "How might we reimagine the cost of college in the U.S. and how it's paid for". I didn't participate, but I think it's key to realize the difference between parents paying for their children's education, as is the case at most Ivy League colleges, and individuals paying for their own undergraduate education, as is the case in "working-class college campuses" with older students already well into adulthood. The unspoken assumption when parents pay for their children's education is that most of them have been saving for it since they've had two decades in the professional world to prepare for their kid going away to college. That's just not the case when a student is in his 20s or 30s, doesn't have a college degree yet, and his parents can't afford helping him pay for it (if they could, they probably would have sent him to college at age 18.)

Leonhardt also has impressive charts about elite colleges being packed with rich students. This helps explain why "working-class colleges have become vastly larger engines of social mobility." Yet, the importance of investing in public education to foster a thriving economy has become increasingly challenged over recent years, with sharp declines in state funding (the movie Starving the Beast is worth seeing if you haven't already done so, see my post here). Offering lower-income students a shot at excellence, social progress and increased opportunity is a critical goal for a nation that wants all its citizens, and not only the wealthy ones, to become the best they can be.  

The George W. Bush Presidential Center

Bush-center-logo(Logo credit: The last seminar of the Emerging Leaders Seminar series at SMU was at the George W. Bush Presidential Center, which opened in April 2013 right next to SMU and houses former President George W. Bush's presidential library and center, the George W. Bush Policy Institute and the offices of the George W. Bush Foundation. I was impressed by Holly Kuzmich's presentation of the center, about which I knew close to nothing before the seminar and which does important policy and humanitarian work, no matter what you think of George W. Bush (GWB)'s presidency, so I figured I'd write a post about the presentation and the center. What follows is my transcript of the presentation's deck of slides. Obviously all inaccuracies are my fault.

The vision of the center echoes GWB's remarks in London in November 2003, where he emphasized his belief in open societies ordered by moral conviction, private markets humanized by compassionate government, and economies that reward effort, communities that protect the weak and the duty of nations to respect the dignity and the rights of all. Its mission is to "engag[e] communities in the United States and around the world by developing leaders, advancing policy and taking action to solve today's most pressing challenges." 

It has 3 broad impact centers: 

  • Domestic excellence
    • Economic growth initiative
      • Advocating free market principles that promote economic growth and further economic integration throughout North America, enabling the U.S. to better compete in the global economy.
        • Developing a North America Policy Agenda for Global Competitiveness (Competitiveness Scorecard, North American Working Group)
        • Releasing data and research outlining how smart immigration policy can be used to raise the pace of U.S. economic growth and GDP and reduce the federal deficit.
    • Education reform initiative
      • Increasing student achievement and improving the quality of our schools by using data and research-based education practices and policies with a focus on accountability and principal leadership.
        • State of Our Cities: an online tool that compares data from over 100 school districts in cities across the nation on academic outcomes, college and career readiness, school finance and other objective measures in education.
        • The Alliance to Reform Education Leadership (AREL): transforming districts' talent management of school principals to help districts have the knowledge and tools to attract and retain effective principals.
        • Middle School Matters: resources to help educators use data-driven research and practices in the classroom to increase student achievement.
        • The Laura Bush Foundation for America's Libraries: provides grants to the nation's neediest schools to expand and update book and print collections.
    • Military service initiative
      • Ensuring post-9/11 veterans and their families make successful transitions to civilian life with a focus on gaining meaningful employment and overcoming the invisible wounds of war.
        • Focus is on helping the 2.7 million veterans who have served since 9/11 transition back to civilian life.
        • Developed the Veteran Employment Transition (VET) Roadmap to help veterans navigate the employment resources available as they transition to post-military careers and partnering with leading veteran-serving and employment coalitions to increase use and adoption of the VET roadmap. 
        • Veteran Wellness: Developed resources to raise awareness and reduce the stigma associated with the invisible wounds of war. Future work will focus on increasing the number of veterans seeking and receiving high-quality care (especially the over half who access care in the private health care system), expanding peer-to-peer networks and creating an alliance of quality providers.
    • Presidential leadership scholars
      • Enhancing the leadership impact of selected high performing mid-career professionals who share a desire to create positive change in their communities and across the nation, in partnership with the presidential center of William J. Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Lyndon B. Johnson. [AT's note: they are all nearby: WJC in Little Rock, AR, GHWB's in College Station, TX, LBJ's in Austin, TX]
        • First of its kind program began in 2015, providing a bipartisan curriculum to teach leadership skills through the prism of Presidential case studies.
        • Diverse group of scholars selected to participate from across the country and across the economy.
        • Scholars bring to the program a Personal Leadership Project that the program is designed to help catalyze in their communities.
  • Global leadership
    • Global health initiative
      • Saving women's lives in the developing world from cervical and breast cancer through the global work of the Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon affiliate.
        • Launched in September 2011 by the Bush Institute, the U.S. Government (through the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), Susan G. Komen (R) and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon has grown to more than 20 partners. 
        • Currently operating in Botswana, Ethiopia, Namibia, Tanzania and Zambia with plans to expand to Peru.
        • More than 315,000 women have been screened for cervical cancer since program inception in 2011. More than 15,000 women have been screened for breast cancer. More than 119,000 girls have been vaccinated against HPV.
    • Human freedom initiative
      • Extending freedom, which is essential to lasting peace and prosperity at home and around the world, by developing leaders in emerging democracies, standing with those who live under tyranny, and fostering U.S. leadership through policy and action.
        • The Liberty and Leadership Forum: an innovative educational and training program that equips young leaders with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed during a democratic transition. To date, almost 60 young Burmese leaders have benefited from the program.
        • The Freedom in North Korea Initiative emphasizes that we cannot meet North Korea's threat by solely focusing on security issues and ignoring their human rights abuses through research and policy recommendations. Because North Korean refugees face particular challenges in accessing an education, the GWB Presidential Center initiated a scholarship fund to help them rebuild their lives in the United States.
        • Upcoming project: a major initiative to revitalize consensus on the imperative of leadership from the United States and other free societies to advance freedom, free markets and security. 
    • Women's initiative
      • Empowering women worldwide by promoting access to education, healthcare, and economic opportunity and supporting First Ladies from around the world in using their unique platforms effectively. 
        • The First Ladies Initiative: supports First Ladies around the world by partnering with them to advance critical interventions for women and children and supporting their staffs by providing technical training and partnership opportunities.
        • The Women's Initiative Fellowship: empowers and equips women from the Middle East and North Africa with the skills to become effective leaders in their countries.
        • The Afghan Women's Project spotlights the struggles and successes of Afghan women. (2016 Bush Institute publication: We are Afghan Women: Voices of Hope)
  • Engagement agenda
    • Library and museum
      • Promoting a greater understanding of the American presidency and examining the consequential times during which President Bush served.
        • Permanent gallery offers a September 11 exhibit, a replica Oval Office and a first-hand look at presidential decision-making in Decision Points Theater.
        • Special exhibits: "Path to the Presidency" in 2016, "Portraits of Courage" in 2017 (GWB's art exhibit tied to the center's work helping veterans overcome the invisible wounds of war [and the publication of his book with veterans' portraits and stories -AT]
        • Partners at the National Archives maintain access to the records of the Bush administration for historians to explore and analyze the times during which GWB served. 
    • Public programming and publications
      • Connecting our work to today's most pressing issues and engaging the public in compelling ways to remain an important part of the national conversation.
        • "Engage at the Bush Center," a series that brings authors, thought leaders, and innovators to the Bush Center stage for thought-provoking lectures and conversations.
        • The Catalyst, a digital quarterly policy journal.
        • Various weekly and bi-monthly e-bulletins.
    • SMU community engagement activities.
      • Enriching the SMU community by attracting leaders to the area, partnering with the faculty in the center's work, offering unique learning experiences for students, and bringing the natural beauty of the center's Native Texas Park to the campus.
        • Internships for SMU students
        • Opportunities for graduate students to do research projects at the Bush Institute through the Niemi Center
        • Faculty teaching in the center's leadership programs
        • Joint endowment to share resources with faculty in pursuing scholarly research and in programming
        • Community engagement opportunities.

100 Days at SMU

IMG_3943 Wednesday November 9 marked my 100th day at SMU and I wanted to write a blog post about it, but since it was also the day after the Presidential Election I obviously had other things on my mind besides writing this post. So here is, a little delayed, my perspective about SMU and Dallas.

The one thing you have to know about SMU and Dallas, especially if you're not from there, is that Dallas is the 2nd fastest growing metropolitan area in the country and SMU, in the words of someone local who did not graduate from SMU and does not work there, has the reputation in the Dallas-Fort Worth area that Stanford has in the country. It helps that so many alumni find work locally at one of the many companies headquartered nearby, such as American Airlines, Frito-Lay, AT&T, Exxon Mobil, FedEx Office, Neiman Marcus, Southwest Airlines, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, Symantec, Atmos Energy, Samsung Telecommunications, and more. It is also refreshing to be able to place top students close to the university where they graduated and hopefully develop strong relationships with industry partners over the years. A healthy situation for a university is when it can train students to later enter the workforce nearby if they so choose and do impactful work commensurate with their talents.

People might wonder about the influence of the Methodist church on university affairs, but its influence is limited to this: half the members of the Board of Trustees must be Methodist and if SMU wants to sell land (the way it did for the George W. Bush Presidential Library) it needs the approval of the Methodist church. And that's it. One thing I particularly like, although I'm not sure if it's due to SMU's Methodist origins or not, is that the commitment to being a force for good in the world pervades everything SMU does. It's already clear in its slogan, "world changers shaped here" and is also emphasized in centers such as the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility and the Hart Center for Engineering Leadership. It feels good to work there. There is a sense of possibility in the air that is difficult to find elsewhere.

I like that SMU is on the top of its hill and cares a lot about research but is also committed to providing students with the best education - classrooms in my building are cutting-edge, all the classrooms are equipped with top-notch distance-ed capabilities with all lectures being videotaped - and has such a supportive and loyal alumni base it recently raised over $1 billion for its Centennial campaign. While SMU already enjoys a stellar reputation regionally, it also has ambitious ideas for innovative academic programs and far-ranging research, and the means to realize its ambitions. I have to admit I have a privileged perspective since I was nominated for the Emerging Leaders program this semester at SMU, which has allowed me and a small group of SMU faculty to meet with top administrators, including the President of the University and the President of the Board of Trustees, in meetings led by the Provost. Let me tell you, SMU has the right people at the helm. It has been inspiring to hear their vision for the university.

My department, Engineering Management, Information and Systems, is led by Sila Cetinkaya who was in the Industrial and Systems Engineering department at Texas A&M until about two years ago, and she has great ideas for the department too. Our graduate students have a great can-do attitude, even when they see my exams (and if you are a former student of mine you know what I mean.) I haven't taught undergrads yet but I have two undergraduate Research Assistants and have been highly impressed by their work ethics and analysis skills. It feels good to see everyone aligned behind SMU's mission, which is to "create, expand, and impart knowledge through teaching, research, and service, shaping world changers who contribute to their communities and excel in their professions in a global society. Among its faculty, students, and staff, the University will cultivate principled thought, develop intellectual skills, and promote an environment emphasizing individual dignity and worth. SMU affirms its historical commitment to academic freedom and open inquiry, to moral and ethical values, and to its United Methodist heritage." A lot of mission statements are full of platitudes, but based on my 100 days here, this one tells the truth. I got into academia to make a difference in the world, and SMU is the right place to do it at.

So far I've found the quality of life to be exceptional. SMU is located in a wealthy part of town with amazing dining options for someone who is health conscious like me (there are plenty of BBQ joints if you prefer). My commute door to door is less than 10 minutes. One of my favorite activities is to go to the SMU Meadows School of Performing Arts, which is one of the leading schools in the nation, for a free program during lunch time (dance, chamber music) or a concert or theater performance after work. I have also enjoyed the vibrant exchanges of the Tate Lecture Series, which have brought leading public figures such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, David Gergen and Tom Brokaw to campus. SMU has many innovation-related programs and activities, including the Deason Innovation Gym, the Master's in Engineering Entrepreneurship and its own TEDxSMU programs.

I can walk from home to the symphony, the opera and the museum, all of which are of first-rate quality. (The Dallas Symphony Orchestra music director Jaap van Zweden will become the New York Philharmonic music director in 2018.) The permanent collections of the Dallas Museum of Art are free, allowing everybody to enjoy them independently of their ability to afford a ticket, and the people the most fascinated by art I've ever seen were teens and families with young minority children, admiring the works of art one by one at the DMA on weekends. I am most in awe of the DMA's collections on the arts of India, Southeast Asia and the Himalayas, which are superb. The presence of these remarkable works of art in Dallas is mostly due to the extraordinary generosity of David T. Owsley. If you like Buddhist art, the Crow Collection of Asian Art next door to the DMA is worth a stop too. Or you can cross the street and head to the Nasher Sculpture Center, which hosts the collection of Raymond and Patsy Nasher. Nasher was responsible for founding the NorthPark Center, currently the second largest mall in Texas (and 5 min drive away from SMU).  NorthPark nearby doubles as an art gallery, with shoppers strolling past statues, paintings and photographs of renowned artists such as Bruce Weber. (If you don't know who Weber is - he has done amazing black-and-white photographs of public figures such as Georgia O'Keeffe.)

When I told people I was moving to Dallas, a reaction I sometimes got was "I would never move to such a conservative city", including by people who have never been there. So far, no one has asked me where I went to church or what my political party was. Given the influx of people from all parts of the country, Dallas is a much more cosmopolitan place than many cities in, say, the Northeast. I also like how successful businesspeople have shown a commitment to philanthropy, whether by supporting Dallas institutions such as the Winspear Opera House or the Meyerson Symphony Hall, or by donating to SMU. For instance, the Lyle School of Engineering would not have the amazing resources it has today without the amazing generosity of Bobby Lyle. 

Since I've written so many good things about the university and the area, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention we're hiring, and although the deadline to apply was last Monday, the committee will continue to review applications until the position is filled. Here is the ad

Disruptive innovation in higher ed

A good read from the archives: The Disruption Machine: What the gospel of innovation gets wrong by Jill Lepore in the June 23, 2014 issue of The New Yorker. This is part of The Annals of Innovation series. I'll give you a hint: Lepore doesn't think highly of Harvard Business School's Clayton Christensen. Christensen responded, as reported here, but the issue hasn't died down, as evidence for instance in the documentary Starving the Beast about the push to starve funding for public universities, which I reviewed here. I'll venture that Lepore's arguments would find even more of an audience if the article was published today, since the criticism she levels at Christensen's concept is echoed in interviews of other scholars in Starving the Beast.

The reason why disruptive innovation is so popular, I think, is that everyone - or at least everyone who reads articles or books on innovation - wants to view himself as a David bringing down Goliath through the power of his own ideas. It is aligned with the American myth of the self-made hero and, yes, the cult of entertainment in action movies. Small changes just aren't as exciting, as University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan discovered for herself when she was briefly ousted by the board of visitors for failing to embrace disruptive change. But universities have always been more akin to ocean steamers rather than speedboats. Just the process of approving new courses takes several months because it has to go through multiple committees in order to make sure the students' educational needs will be well served.

To be more like speedboats they would have to implement knowledge delivery models with much shorter lead times from intake to graduation - maybe even one-semester-long programs, or even an emphasis on a piecemeal approach based on courses rather than entire degree programs. But it is likely that the unbundling of degree delivery would also result in drops in related degree programs, leading to lower revenues. It is also worth asking whether people who have only taken one course at a school should benefit from its alumni network or will show enough loyalty to donate to the school later on.

In industry, you can prototype and iterate fast. In academia, you have real people rather than products to focus on, and you are trying to establish a lifelong relationship to help support operations through donations, while keeping your competitive advantage. You want to generate ever-growing enthusiasm for your school and build momentum for always more applications of always more qualified applicants, but you are also looking at a time horizon extending far beyond graduation because a few of those new admits will become multi-million-dollars donors decades from now. I think, if disruptive innovation has a future in academia, that would not be in the industry sense of a newcomer grabbing market share from an incumbent from behind, after years catering to a segment of no interest to the incumbent, but it would be in transforming knowledge delivery through an increased emphasis in continuing education.

Today continuing education is the most obvious revenue-generating stream for most universities, which charge thousands of dollars for a few days on campus, and sometimes it seems that the benefits are a bit one-sided, with universities getting a lot of money and attendees a piece of paper stating they have attended a few days of lecture. It's a bit like the hefty registration fee for a TED conference, which attendees pay to say they have been there. The talks can be interesting, but you pay for the prestige of going rather than the content. (The videos end up online anyway.) Instead of being a pure cash cow taking advantage of people's insecurities and eagerness, continuing education has to be of much better quality for it to be the next disruption in higher ed. But someone will do it and when it does it will be transformative.