‘Buy Yourself a Professor’

That's the title of a recent article (g) in Unispiegel, a section of the Spiegel website) dedicated to higher education news. It details a secret contract signed by the Humboldt University and the Technical University and Deutsche Bank. The Deutsche Bank funds two professorships and an institute (the "Quantitative Products Laboratory"), and in return gets certain privileges (my translation):

A steering committee directs the research initiative, deciding among other things about the practical implementation, the research strategy to be employed, [and] personnel resources… The committee is composed of two representatives of the Deutsche Bank and two university professors. The deciding factor is the voting procedure in a tie: "If the voting results in a tie, the Managing Director will have the final say," it provides in paragraph 3 of the contract. And the Managing Director comes from Deutsche Bank.

The bank also decides which research results will be made public. Papers "will be made available to the Deutsche Bank at least 60 days before they are presented to third parties, for instance for purposes of a first publication, so that a decision can be made whether to permit their publication." The Deutsch Bank generously concedes that it will be "generous" in its decisions about publication, however only to the extent that "the interests of Deutsche Bank are not affected." Only after two years are scholars free to publish their research any way they please.

Deutsche Bank also secured influence over teaching, by specifying that "their employees will, according to valid regulations, be hired as adjunct professors and to grade student work." In Paragraph 7 the Bank specifies, under the heading "Personnel Marketing", that it will be assisted by the university in hiring new employees.

The secret contract was revealed by a professor emeritus of political science, Peter Grottian. According to the Spiegel article, the "scientific community" has reacted with "outrage". The head of the German University Association said, for instance, "One can hardly avoid the impression that this contract involves the purchase of academic work (Wissenschaft)." Yet he must know that this story is just the tip of the iceberg.

I'm of two minds about this sort of thing. People who study more practical sorts of majors such as finance or biology (and, to an extent, law) are likely to seek jobs in the private sector after they graduate, and programs that let them gain real-world experience are a fine idea. (Ideally, there should also be similarly well-funded programs for people who don't intend to go work for private industry, but I'm not holding my breath for that.) I also don't have a huge problem with naming rights. As tacky as the results might be sometimes, it's hardly a threat to academic freedom, as long as the donors don't get any influence over who will be hired for a sponsored professorship or what will be taught in the building named after them.

But this deal is bad for two reasons: first, because it remained secret. This is not unusual in Germany, in which a combination of strict privacy laws, no whistleblowing culture, and a clubby insider mentality impair transparency and accountability everywhere you turn. The Humboldt University and the Technical University are both financed by German taxpayers' money, and any important contract the University enters into should be open for public inspection. The rule should be firmly established from the very beginning, so that Deutsche Bank, or a pharmaceutical company, or an insurance company, know that any provision they negotiate with a university will be public, for all to see.

Second, this contract shows how private industry dominates in negotiations with universities. On one side of this deal you have rich, cunning, hard-charging businesspeople working for billion-euro globe-spanning corporation. On the other, you have professors and bureaucrats who may well have never spent an hour working in the private sector under normal conditions (i.e., not as interns or consultants). German universities rarely have dedicated administrators responsible for negotiating third-party contracts, and even if they do, these people are probably tenured bureaucrats who will never as hard-charging and aggressive as private-sector operators. Further, the professors are often under pressure to obtain outside funding, and the private-sector people know this. Given these incentives, it's no wonder that private firms often steamroll universities in negotiating these sorts of contracts. The universities underestimate their bargaining power.

This problem of private-sector actors seeking inappropriate concessions is definitely not limited to Berlin, it happens all over the place, including the university I work at. The key thing is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater: some cooperation between the private sector and universities is desirable, it just needs to happen in ways that preserve academic freedom. Here's my preferred solution: First, pass a law simply making it illegal for a university that receives any public money to bargain away any of its academic freedom in contracting with the private sector. Any contract provision that purported to give a private company any say over publications, etc. would be unenforceable. That would set up appropriate ground rules before the negotiations even began. Second, all contracts entered into with third-party funders must be made public, preferably by being scanned in on the Internet and posted to a website. Once again, you could make this a private-law enforcability rule: any contract or provision that was not made public cannot be enforced in a court of law.

The solutions should be applicable nationwide, to prevent a "race to the bottom". These rules might deter some cooperation between higher education and the private sector, but I would hope that it would be precisely the most problematic sorts of "cooperation" that would fade away, while the healthier kind went on unimpeded.

Violent Crime Rising in Germany, Falling in States

Thanks to Kevin Drum, I've been twigged to Zanran, a new web search engine that brings you statistics and graphs. Here are a couple of graphs I got by searching for the German crime rate (which are from this paper):German CrimeThe American figures, from this report, result in the following graph:

Crime in US
The drop in violent crime has continued since 2005, despite economic hard times. This has sparked a lot of interest. According to Kevin Drum's summary of a spate of recent articles on the phenomenon, the short explanation for the crime drop in the States is "perhaps one-quarter due to increased incarceration, one-quarter due to reduced cocaine use, and one half due to reductions in blood lead levels in children."

Note that Germany started from a much lower baseline; therefore (assuming the statistics are roughly comparable), the U.S. still has more violent crime than Germany. But if the U.S. is at 450 incidents per 100,000 and dropping, and Germany is at 280 and rising, the gap will close if current trends continue. Indeed, it might even have already closed.

I can imagine the soul-searching that would be prompted by the news that Germany has more violent crime than the U.S. Keep in mind, though, that even if Germany develops similar levels of violent crime in general, American will still have much more lethal crime than Germany, mostly because of guns.

Enslaving Europe, Doggy-Style*

Nazi dogs
I'm as dismayed as the next civic-minded person by the Anglo-Saxon world's unhealthy Nazi fixation, but it's worthwhile remembering there are some not wholly illegitimate reasons for it. One is how exciting this era was: one of the world's most advanced nations decided to basically wipe the slate clean and force-march itself into a new era of enforced social order and technological mastery. The intellectual framework driving this momentous transformation had room for any number of batty or semi-batty notions: medieval folktales, nudism, anthroposophy, runes, time travel, etc. Anyone with a crazy-yet-völkisch scheme for social progress could get a hearing, and sometimes funding.

Which brings us to the Nazi talking dog school:

In his new book Amazing Dogs: A Cabinet of Canine Curiosities, Cardiff University historian Jan Bondeson mines obscure German periodicals to reveal the Nazis' failed attempt to breed an army of educated dogs that could read, write and talk…

According to the book, scientists envisioned a day when dogs would serve alongside German troops, and perhaps free up SS officers by guarding concentration camps. So to unlock all that canine potential, Hitler set up a Tier-Sprechschule (Animal Talking School) near Hanover and recruited "educated dogs" from throughout the country. Teachers claimed a number of incredible findings. An Airedale terrier named Rolf became a mythic figure of the project after teachers said he could spell by tapping his paw on a board (the number of taps represented the various letters of the alphabet). With that skill in hand, he mused on religion, learned foreign languages and even asked a noblewoman, "Can you wag your tail?" Perhaps most outlandish is the claim by his German masters that he asked to serve in the German army because he disliked the French. Another mutt barked "Mein Fuhrer" [sic] when asked to describe Hitler. And Don, a German pointer, is said to have imitated a human voice to bark, "Hungry! Give me cakes!" in German.

Germany's love of dogs may have blinded the Nazis to the outlandish goals of their project. "Part of the Nazi philosophy was that there was a strong bond between humans and nature. They believed a good Nazi should be an animal friend," Bondeson says. "Indeed, when they started interning Jews, the newspapers were flooded with outraged letters from Germans wondering what had happened to the pets they left behind.

Which brings me, in turn, to my scheme for Instant World Peace™: in the future, all wars must be fought by dogs instead of humans. I confidently predict that just one evening newscast of mutilated, gasping, blood-spattered dogs twitching their last on a battlefield will accomplish what 5000 years of recorded human suffering haven't.

* Appalling title, I know. By the way, 'the' Nazi Dogs exist.

Another Territory Added to My Expanding Media Empire

WDR5, the public radio channel with which I have a 94% love/6% hate relationship, recently interviewed me for a feature about how foreigners see Germany. You can download the whole program here.

I haven't listened to it yet, because it's too cringeifying. But I thought it would be queer not to mention it on this blog, since that's the main reason they interviewed me.

If I sound a little drunk during the interview, that's because I was! Mmmmm, Hefe-Weizenbier

Saint’s Skull in the Bargain Bin

This news from Ireland:

A severed head alleged to belong to the patron saint of genital diseases will hit the auction block in Ireland Sunday.

Saint Vitalis of Assisi died 640 years ago, but the Italian Benedictine monk's encased head can now be yours.

Auctioneer Damien Matthews of Matthews Auction Rooms estimates the ancient skull could fetch up to $1,650.

Only $1650? What's the world coming to when (cue swelling strings)…a saint's skull sells for a song?

On a more serious note, I find this story a bit fishy, because I find it hard to believe that it's legal to buy and sell human remains in Ireland. But perhaps they have some sort of permit.

Embarrassing the State

Sophie Meunier on the reaction in France to the DSK scandal:

With a few days hindsight, however, what is most surprising about the fallout of the DSK scandal in France is not how much, but rather how little displays of anti-Americanism it has provoked. To the contrary, the scandal is now turning into a teachable moment and a frank analysis of the comparative merits of French and American society. Perhaps this is the bargaining stage: if we understand the American system, perhaps we can expect it to treat one of our own fairly?

The flamboyant declarations by Bernard-Henri Lévy who was trying to help his friend by complaining that the American judge had treated DSK "like any other" subject of justice backfired. The next news cycle in France was about introspection. What if the American justice system actually had some features that could be replicated, such as the equality of treatment? A flurry of accusatory articles popped up in the French press denouncing how a defendant of DSK's stature would never have gone through the same legal troubles in France -unlike a random "Benoit" or "Karim." As socialist and DSK friend Manuel Valls publicly confessed, criticizing the American justice system also puts the spotlight on the weaknesses of French justice. This realization that perhaps the Americans might have components in their justice system that should be replicated in France might have left many with the depressing thought – "maybe we are not as wonderful and superior as we thought: so what is now our place in the world?"

[T]he French media … quickly went into soul-searching mode. By refusing to report beyond the "bedroom door", had they been complicit? Why doesn't France have a tradition of investigative journalism? Should French reporters be importing best practices from their American counterparts?

European journalists tend to do a lot more commenting on what everyone else already knows than they do unearthing controversial new facts themselves. It's much easier to write yet another 1000 words assessing the implications of the Green Party regional conference in northern Thuringia than to trace illegal campaign contributions, assess racial discrimination in German justice, or uncover scandals within the German intelligence services.

Part of the problem is, of course, simple laziness. However, my examples aren't picked at random: they all involve writing stories that would embarrass the state. Investigative journalism in Germany is usually aimed mostly at the private sector; reports go undercover as low-wage workers, or publish exposes of lobbying scandals (for example) with some frequency. What they do less often is to publish stories that cast doubt on government officials' competence or honesty, or expose serious problems with government institutions. I think there are a few reasons for this: class solidarity between reporters and government officials, an undeveloped culture of leaking and whistleblowing, no freedom of information laws, and a general sense of loyalty to the state.

An example: a commenter to a previous post suggested that racial discrimination in German criminal justice is indeed discussed frequently in Germany, and linked to a German-language Wikipedia entry on the subject of crime by foreigners in Germany (g). However, the Wikipedia entry contains not a single reference to the possibility that some of the over-representation of foreigners in German prisons could be due to racial discrimination in the justice system. It doesn't even occur to German journalists or researchers to even ask the question whether the justice system might treat minorities unfairly.

I don't mean to single out Germany for this problem: France suffers from it as well: "For decades, French residents of immigrant origin—both the recently arrived and those whose families have been living in France for multiple generations—have complained that police target them for unfair, discriminatory, and unnecessary identity checks." The issue is now before the French Constitutional Council. But it was neither the French government nor the French press that challenged ethnic profiling: it was the Open Society Institute, an NGO founded by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. As a press release (pdf) notes, "In 2009 the Open Society Justice Initiative published Profiling Minorities: A Study of Stop-and-Search Practices in Paris, the first rigorous study to produce quantitative evidence necessary to identify and detect patterns of ethnic profiling in France."

The pattern is typical of much European journalism: After the 2005 riots in France's poor suburbs, the chattering classes produced long thumb-suckers about What it All Means, with all sorts of high-toned discussions of integration and marginalization and the Republican tradition and whatnot. But apparently nobody thought to actually study whether the protesters' complaint that they faced constant discrimination was actually well-grounded. The most obvious question went unasked and unanswered — until the Open Society Institute came along…

The Diligence Front

Yglesias reminds me: the strong cultural norm in Germany to complain about being overworked is explained by the fact that Germans want to hide from the rest of the world just how little they work:

Hoursworked The methodology is taking the total number of hours worked and dividing it by the number of people employed, which presumably includes the millions of German mothers who work less than full-time to care for their children.

If you inform Germans of what's in this chart, they invariably profess surprise and become defensive, insisting that the statistic must somehow be misleading and/or that they work very hard when they do work.

I tell them what they should do is lean back with a wolfish grin and chuckle: "Yes, we've built a society in which people have tremendous amounts of leisure time. I personally take three long vacations a year, and haven't worked a weekend in years. Magnificent, isn't it?" At first it might earn them a few punches in the face, but eventually other nations might become interested in how to imitate the Germans, which would lead to a massive worldwide increase in leisure time!

Germ-Free Nation

Every time I visit the U.S., I'm always amused by some Crazy New Trend™ from the United States. I try to make a note of them, because they will usually take hold in Germany a couple years later. I can then impress friends with my seemingly uncanny abilities to peer into Germany's future.

This trip's Crazy New Trend™ is the ubiqitous presence of waist-high, stand-alone dispensers of hand sanitizing gel. Here's one found in the lobby of a nice hotel:

  Germstar in Hotel Lobby

I've also seen them in government buildings, university buildings, and even outside a church. Americans take personal hygiene seriously, but is it really necessary to sanitize your hands every 30 minutes? What does it say about a luxury hotel or church that it details this sentinel of purity to remind guests that their extremities are teeming with filth? "Foul plebeians, you are presumed skanky until proven germless!", the myserious orb seems to command, "Anoint yourself with the balm of Hygieia!"

At any rate, we know one thing: If it's happening in the U.S. now, it's coming to Germany soon. Teutons, behold your future!

DSK and the Perp Walk

The French find the perp walk, a New York tradition in which high-profile defendants are forced to walk in handcuffs in front of reporters with cameras, to be undignified:

Though horrified by those alleged crimes, the French press and political elite on Monday seemed perhaps more scandalized still by the images of Mr. Strauss-Kahn’s brusque treatment by the New York police, and his exposure in the American media.

“I found that image to be incredibly brutal, violent and cruel,” the former justice minister Elisabeth Guigou told France-Info radio on Monday, referring to widely published photographs of a beleaguered-looking Mr. Strauss-Kahn, handcuffed and led by several New York police officers. “I am happy that we do not have the same judicial system.”

As justice minister, Ms. Guigou, now a parliamentarian, oversaw the passage of a law prohibiting the publication of photographs of handcuffed criminal suspects.

“I don’t see what the publication of images of this type adds,” she said.

Asked about Ms. Guigou’s remarks, Eva Joly, a well-known French magistrate who once brought charges against Mr. Strauss-Kahn for corruption (of which he was later acquitted), agreed that “these are very violent images.” Ms. Joly, who is now a leader of the French Green Party expected to run in next year’s presidential election, added that this sort of media spectacle might be “more violent for a celebrity than for an unknown person,” but noted that the American justice system “doesn’t distinguish between the director of the I.M.F. and any other suspect. It’s the idea of equal rights.” *

Ms. Joly also suggested that the ‘perp walk’ images of Mr. Strauss-Kahn in handcuffs were a product of a justice system quote unlike the French one, because American prosecutors always needs to think about convincing a jury of a suspect’s guilt.

If there is a trial in this case, it will shed fascinating light on how Europeans perceive the American criminal justice system. The notion of intentionally forcing criminal suspects to appear in public in handcuffs and accompanied by police is completely inconsistent with the notions of dignity, privacy and fairness in Continental criminal proceedings. And it's not just a matter of different standards for the famous and powerful — in France, neither rich nor poor defendants are intentionally forced into a public perp walk before their trials. For the record, I also find the 'perp walk' to be objectionable — as Guigou says in the above article, this humiliating ritual doesn't serve any informative purpose, and undermines the presumption of innocence. More thoughts here.

Racial Bias in German Justice

To add some more context to the post about WDR5'S flub, I should note that the mere fact that certain groups are overrrepresented in a country's or state's prisons naturally doesn't establish bias — although I would argue that it's an indicator of potential problems that should warrant further study.

Establishing discrimination against group X requires eliminating tons of confounding variables, including:

  • Do members of group X disproportionately commit certain kinds of crimes? Is there a differential pattern of arrest or enforcement: i.e., members of group X get arrested more often because they can't afford cars or private residences and therefore conduct their illegal activities in public?
  • Do prosecutors make different charging decisions against members of group X? Do they cut more or fewer deals with members of group X?
  • Are members of group X more or less likely to be diverted to a non-custodial sentence?
  • Are the prison sentences handed down to members of group X longer or shorter than the sentences handed out by majority-group members for the same crime?
  • Do members of group X get released from prison earlier or later than the majority group? If later, is this because they offend more in prison? Is the decision to release prisoners early subject to discretion?

There's been a massive effort in the U.S. to design studies that control for as many of these variables as possible. To get an idea of just how intensely this subject has been addressed, just look at this discussion. As for death row, my impression of the study results is that there's some evidence of discrimination based on the race of the defendant, but it's not glaring. Blacks are disproportionately represented on death row, but they're also disproportionately represented among the group of people who could theoretically end up on death row — that is, people who have committed homicide. In fact, black arrest rates for most crimes are significantly higher than arrest rates among whites in the U.S.

So, to put it simply, if 40 percent of the people committing death-penalty eligible offenses (aggravated intentional murder) are black, the mere fact that 40 percent of the people on death row are black isn't, by itself, evidence of discrimination. You have to dig deeper. There is clearer evidence based on the race of the victim. That is, holding other things equal, you're more likely to be sentenced to death for killing a white person than for killing a minority. Once again, the effects aren't necessarily all that strong, but they seem fairly robust.

Some of the evidence of racial discrimination is certainly an artifact of income inequality. Almost everyone who ends up on death row was unable to afford a private attorney, and had to rely on public defenders. And given that blacks are much poorer than whites, they are that much more unlikely to be able to afford private legal assistance, and that much more likely to get the worst outcome in the penal system for someone in their position.

As is so often the case, the German media's careful focus on social problems in America is matched by a curious disinterest in whether the same problem exists in Germany. According to page 96 of this report from the Federal Justice Ministry (pdf, g), 22.2% of the people in German prisons are foreigners. This is certainly higher than their representation in the population, and it doesn't include a much larger number of people who might be targets of discrimination — people who have German citizenship, but who have foreign names or non-white skin. Google searches for Diskriminierung & Strafjustiz get you some speeches, statements, and articles, many not even on-point. What you don't get are careful, well-constructed statistical analyses. The press and the scholarly community in fact seem utterly disinterested in the question of whether there is racial discrimination in German courts.

Why might this be? Here are a few suggested explanations, feel free to dispute them or add others of your own in comments:

  • Blind faith in German criminal justice and/or lack of knowledge about exactly how it operates.
  • There can't be discrimination in Germany because discrimination by government officials is prohibited by the German Basic Law, and therefore doesn't exist.
  • If the press focusses too much on the fact that foreigners are disproportionately represented in German prisons, right-wingers will use the fact to argue that they're inherently violent and/or should be deported.
  • Access to information: American criminal proceedings are public and easy to study, most German ones are not, meaning that creating a database would mean endless hassles getting access to data.
  • A desire not to anger local judges and prosecutors by accusations of discrimination, thereby endangering future leaks/tips/cooperation/student placements.
  • Class solidarity: Journalists share similar backgrounds with German judges and prosecutors, and don't want to be seen as questioning the motives of 'people like us'.
  • There are no powerful, nationwide lobbying and advocacy groups working to protect the rights of German minorities who might have the resources and the motivation to fund discrimination studies.