Vernon Robinson is back

Vernon Robinson probably doesn’t mean much to most but NC political junkies, but oh my is he entertaining.  He ran a campaign for the US House (NC 13) in 2006 that was almost like an Onion parody of a far-right conservative.  It was awesome in it’s extremity.  Here’s one of his TV ads:

And these radio ads are even better– especially this one.

Now he’s back in the news– at least a little bit– in leading the Draft Ben Carson for president campaign (and, boy, if that ain’t a couple of nutjobs in a pod).  Anyway, I was excited to make the Mother Jones article on the matter.  Vernon Robinson is just one of those people that make it fun to be a political scientist:

In 2006, the one time he advanced to a general election in his three bids for Congress, Robinson faced incumbent Democratic Rep. Brad Miller, and mounted a memorably vitriolic, homophobic, and ad hominem campaign.

In 2003, in an open letter outlining his platform, Robinson decried “one world globalists” and “militant homosexuals,” he pledged to ban “gay Scoutmasters” and the federal income tax, and he blamed blacks’ problems on welfare and a “lack of morality.” With Miller, a popular, left-of-center lawyer, Robinson found a target for his harshly anti-gay, nativist views. He suggested that Miller was having an affairwith liberal blogger and Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas, and said that Miller wanted to make America “one big fiesta for homosexuals and illegal immigrants.” …

In the 2006 congressional contest, Robinson spent over $1 million on fundraising, out of $2 million in total campaign expenditures. (Miller spent $1.7 million on his entire campaign.) Some of the biggest recipients of Robinson’s fundraising money were direct mail companies run by the Virginia-based conservative fundraiser Bruce Eberle. His firms—Omega List, ECG Data Center—maintain massive lists of donors and rent them out to candidates. Over the course of Robinson’s congressional campaigns, Eberle has done nearly $400,000 worth of business with him.

The practice of spending money to raise money is nothing new, but Robinson has been so reliant on this tactic that some political observers wonder whether his intention is to do much more than draw in donations. “Obviously, his great skill was in pushing the right buttons to raise money,” says Steven Greene, a state politics expert at North Carolina State University. Greene says Robinson was a “strategic loser”—so extreme in his positions that he’d never have a serious shot at office, but an appealing target for the fundraising dollars of ideologues. Another NCSU professor, Andy Taylor, said in 2006 that contributing to Robinson was like “flushing money down the toilet.”

Anyway, Ben Carson is not exactly going to win the Republican nomination.  But I’ll happily take any opportunity for a memorable stroll down Vernon Robinson lane.





Photo(s) of the day

From the Telegraph’s Animal Photos of the week.  I feel like these should be the source of some fables or something like that.

A baby turtle hitches a ride on a bullfrog in one of a series of stunning shots captured by photographer Shi Khei Goh in the forests of Batam, Indonesia

A baby turtle hitches a ride on a bullfrog in one of a series of stunning shots captured by photographer Shi Khei Goh in the forests of Batam, Indonesia. He also snapped…Picture: Shi Khei Goh/MEDIA DRUM

praying mantis apparently waving from the head of a mamba

…a praying mantis apparently waving from the head of a mambaPicture: Shi Khei Goh/MEDIA DRUM

Universities as luxury goods

So, how do improve the reputation of your university?  Spend, spend, spend.  Even more so, increase the cost of tuition.  Really interesting essay on this– using GW as a case study– in the NYT:

I talked to a half-dozen of Hugh Moren’s fellow students. A highly indebted senior who was terrified of the weak job market described George Washington, where he had invested considerable time getting and doing internships, as “the world’s most expensive trade school.” Another mentioned the abundance of rich students whose parents were giving them a fancy-sounding diploma the way they might a new car. There are serious students here, he acknowledged, but: “You can go to G.W. and essentially buy a degree.”

I went on the university’s website to look for some kind of data or study indicating how much students at George Washington were actually learning. There was none. This is not unusual, it turns out. Colleges and universities rarely, if ever, gather and publish information about how much undergraduates learn during their academic careers…

Instead of focusing on undergraduate learning, numerous colleges have been engaged in the kind of building spree I saw at George Washington. Recreation centers with world-class workout facilities and lazy rivers rise out of construction pits even as students and parents are handed staggeringly large tuition bills. Colleges compete to hire famous professors even as undergraduates wander through academic programs that often lack rigor or coherence. Campuses vie to become the next Harvard — or at least the next George Washington — while ignoring the growing cost and suspect quality of undergraduate education.

And this following part is what really struck me:

Mr. Trachtenberg [former GW president], however, understood something crucial about the modern university. It had come to inhabit a market for luxury goods. People don’t buy Gucci bags merely for their beauty and functionality. They buy them because other people will know they can afford the price of purchase. The great virtue of a luxury good, from the manufacturer’s standpoint, isn’t just that people will pay extra money for the feeling associated with a name brand. It’s that the high price is, in and of itself, a crucial part of what people are buying.

Mr. Trachtenberg convinced people that George Washington was worth a lot more money by charging a lot more money. Unlike most college presidents, he was surprisingly candid about his strategy. College is like vodka, he liked to explain. Vodka is by definition a flavorless beverage. It all tastes the same. But people will spend $30 for a bottle of Absolut because of the brand. A Timex watch costs $20, a Rolex $10,000. They both tell the same time.

The Absolut Rolex plan worked. The number of applicants surged from some 6,000 to 20,000, the average SAT score of students rose by nearly 200 points, and the endowment jumped from $200 million to almost $1 billion.

Now here’s the thing… In my experience at various universities I have to say that the overall quality of the undergraduates has a very significant impact on the quality of the education, regardless of the quality of the faculty.  (Faculty can be much more rigorous when you know that the majority of your students can/will handle it than when it is just 2 or 3 in a class.  And in my experience, given the option, faculty will be much more rigorous.)    In that sense, GW has almost surely improved as a university by improving the quality of its students.  But what just kills me is that parents and prospective students simply use the price tag as a marker of quality.  It’s not!  Among other things, there are a number of top-notch public universities that I guarantee you are way better than GW.

Anyway, it’s a really interesting look at how the incentives at modern universities are not about increasing the quality of the education, but on spending money on fancy new things.

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