Podcast Digest (July 21, 2016)

A couple podcasts have stood out in the digest over the last 9 days.

The surprising case of Queen Latifah!

Outside the usual format of StarTalk, Episode 19 of Season 7 had an hour-length unedited interview between Neil deGrasse Tyson and Queen Latifah! I am not familiar with her work as a hip-hop artist,[1] but I do remember her from Chicago (see below), and it turns out she is quite a fan of science and the work that Neil does.

The interview covered a wide arrange of topics, including how her brother was an amateur scientist/tinkerer growing up, and how we no longer encourage kids to experiment by taking pieces of technology apart. We also learned that Queen Latifah is particularly concerned currently about global warming. It was definitely a fun interview with Neil cracking some amusing jokes.[2]

One felt that they came from similar backgrounds with supportive African-American communities that placed a strong emphasis on education. They both pointed out that while African-American churches are supporters of creationism, they have not pushed for changes in the public school curriculum the way some on the religious right (i.e. religious ‘white’) have. Neil made the insightful point that black churches had a lot of other issues they had to worry about and were focused on ensuring equality and decent life chances for their members. Both Neil and Queen Latifah are both huge karate fans and I learned about Billy Jack, who is half Navajo but also a Green Beret and a hapkido master for good measure too. This moment where Billy Jack tells the (racist) sheriff that he is going to kick him across the face and there “ain’t a damn thing you can do about it”, was one one of Neil’s favorite cinematic moments growing up (see below).

The Bowdoin take down

I already mentioned that I gave two thumbs up to Malcolm Gladwell’s new podcast Revisionist History last week, and he continued to delight with Episodes 4, 5, and 6 which are addressed at some of the pathologies of the US higher education system. In Episode 4, Carlos Doesn’t Remember, we learn about about the challengers that a young and very smart boy (named Carlos) from South LA has in getting into university, even with the support of a charity program that will pay for his private tuition if he gets into a good school. The episode highlights that even with ‘educational angel investors’ if kids grow up in a violent neighbourhood with dysfunctional parents, there is only so much they can do. This view somewhat reminded me of the conservative critique of poverty in that it stems from broken homes.[3]

In Food Fight (Episode 5), we get an excoriating critique of the lush amenities the elite private liberal arts colleges in the north east are providing for their students and hidden costs that result from this:

  • More money on amenities means less money for income support.
  • A pampered campus experience in one college means that another one (such as Vassar) which tries to skimp on amenities is put a competitive disadvantage.

This traditional idea that one can have a range of private schools, some with pampered student lifestyles and others with more stoic living experiences does not work in a funding environment which is a ‘barbell’ system. This is where a large chunk of students pay the full price, and a large chunk pay very little at all. In other words, the students from rich families cross subsidize the poorer kids. However, just like insurance markets, cross subsidization is not sustainable because of selection bias, which means that the ‘rich pickings’ (wealthy kids) will be tempted to the indulgent campus lifestyles. Gladwell tells us of a tale of two schools: Vassar and Bowdoin, with the latter having an almost obscene high quality of school food (the only school with a Michelin star, Gladwell said jokingly).

Inside higher ed provides a good summary of the reaction to the podcast, and Bowdoin College’s bitter response can be found here. While some of the criticisms seem legitimate (that Gladwell did not interview Bowdoin’s senior administration for example), he has every right to focus on this fact: universities that compete on the margin with nicer amenities make it very challenging for their competitors to focus on achieving a high number of lower income students. However, Gladwell’s Tweet on the subject absolutely endeared me to him:

One other really important point that Gladwell highlights (and that I didn’t know before this - although it doesn’t surprise me) is that the capital and interest that universities earn on their endowment is tax-free. So when Princeton earned $2 billion dollars (a roughly 10% return) on its 2015 endowment fund (it went up to around $22 billion) it didn’t have to pay a single penny of taxes. Amazing.

In many ways, this highlights the fact that providing access through the traditional bastions of the elite ‘liberal arts’ education is just not going to work, and that cheap educational opportunities need to be provided for through the state school system. Furthermore, this does not not mean making a two-tiered system, but instead we should strive with the California-style model whereby the government pours significant sums of money to ensure that a public school system can afford to pay for world class research.

Just when one thought Malcolm Gladwell was done the roast, he produced a chair from behind his back and swung directly at the endowment system at elite US colleges. However, Episode 6 My Little Hundred Million begins swith the positive example of Hank Rowan, a philanthropist who gave his money to start an engineering school at a small college in New Jersey. While mega-donations to universities are now common (and commonly mocked as shown below), this was somewhat groundbreaking at the time.

Moving onto today, the tax-free endowments (see above) at some of the major universities are not just massive, they’re growing. Using a standard welfare-economics approach, Gladwell asks on what planet could this be socially justifiable? In an amusing interview with John Hennessy, the president of Stanford, Gladwell asks if there is either any situation in which Stanford would say it has enough money or that it could use more money, but it might be better used elsewhere. Hennessy says no and no, first because Stanford never runs out of ambitions (like a Silicon valley firm!) and second because he cannot be sure if any other university could use the money effectively as his could (i.e. he cannot swear to the quality of say UC-San Diego).

Gladwell suggests that current charitable giving to universities would be great if education were a purely strongest link phenomenon in which the output depends on who is the best. He uses a soccer/basketball analogy in which the former is a weakest-link game because the ability to score from the strongest link in the team is less than the cost of having goals scored on you from the mistakes made by the weakest link. Basketball is the reverse, as a player like Micheal Jordan or LeBron James can dominate the whole game and a few lost points from sloppy mistakes are not make-or-break for the match. Of course, education is somewhere in between the two extremes as Gladwell points out.[4] However, the balance is clearly too far in favour of the elite universities currently.

Part of what makes the roast of higher education so much fun, is that academia is uniquely smug in both its feeling of social importance and moral superiority to almost any other institution. A pleasant tingle of schadenfreude inevitable comes from sound of higher ed’s monocle falling off in shock at an assault on its privilege.


  1. But then again I am not familiar with any hip-hop artist’ss career so this is not a unique blind spot. 

  2. Including: “A photon checks into a hotel and the bellhop asks him if he has any luggage, to which the photon responds: ‘No I’m travelling light.’”. Great. Or this gem: “A Higgs boson particle walks into a church and is asked to leave. To which he responds: ‘But without me you can’t have mass.’” 

  3. Although in traditional conservative talking points, this is usually followed with a non sequitur linking this to gay marriage. 

  4. Gladwell points out, being Canadian, that sometimes a country needs a “top” science and engineering school that gets a disproportionate amount of the resources, and points to the University of Waterloo as an example. 

Written on July 21, 2016