Archive for November 2009

Faculty furlough days: what a mess

November 20, 2009

“If the faculty had voted against [taking furlough days], it would have been a signal to the voters that faculty here, and by extension higher education in general, isn’t taking the problems of the state seriously,” said Bill Lunch, chairman of the political science department.

One can always count on Bill Lunch to provide the very definition of conventional wisdom.  The problem is framing it this way – either vote for the specific motion, or suffer.  That’s clearly a false choice, and the faculty who shut down debate on alternatives did themselves and their colleagues a tremendous disservice yesterday when they used that argument to end debate.

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Will changing demographics automatically change politics?

November 5, 2009

I hear this claim made quite a bit:

Political scientists have marveled at the distinctive attitudes of “millennials,” born roughly between 1982 and 2003. (Thus, a single generation seems to encompass both my daughter and many of my co-workers!) They are characterized above all by tolerance but also by cooperation, liberal political views, and respect for public institutions. They form the basis not just for the Obama Democratic coalition but for the hope of a progressive politics in the future.

That’s all fine and good, but I think there’s some assumptions that have been inserted in there between the demographics of so-called Millenials and some kind of progressive future:

First, that this group will maintain their progressive personal politics.

Second, that they will enter public politics.

And third – and probably most important – that the simple equation progressive people + politics = progressive politics works.  I don’t think it does; look at the influence of money on politics.  Look at the disproportionate influence of both Southerners and movement conservatives on politics.  Look at, in other words, the structural factors that affect US electoral politics now, and tell me exactly changing demographics alone is supposed to magically lead to a progressive future.  I’m just not buying it.

I do buy, however, that it’s likely, and will be incremental, and will be viciously opposed by money and hate the entire way, but will ultimately happen: MLK’s ‘long arc of history bends towards justice’ and all that.  But that’s not the same thing.  I’ve only ever seen this claim made in a very simplified form, and in that form, I think it’s far less a given – as many people take it to be – and far more of a possibility.

GT editorial on OSU’s expansion

November 3, 2009

I can’t quite decide if I like this piece or not.  On the one hand, there are parts I like:

We’d also urge OSU officials to make this process as transparent and public as possible. If we’re talking about the possible elimination of programs – and it’s clear that we are – the only thing that could be worse than a decision that’s perceived by the public as being overly hasty would be a decision that the public believes was made entirely behind closed doors.

And we encourage OSU to reach beyond the borders of campus in soliciting public participation. … The community would appreciate having a chance to weigh in.

We know – goodness, how we know – that encouraging wide public participation brings with it the potential of adding unexpected bumps to the road. In the long run, though, it makes for a much smoother ride.

Then there are parts that I think could have connected the dots a bit better.  Two parts, specifically.  The first:

If you’ve become accustomed to the pace at which Oregon State University typically tackles big initiatives – let’s be generous and call it, well, carefully paced and deliberative – the speed at which the university is approaching its “OSU 2025” overhaul will be a shock to the system.

So why is OSU moving so fast?  This is the answer hinted at by OSU and picked up by the GT:

These are, potentially, huge decisions to be making on a short timeline. But OSU officials believe this process needs to move quickly – and the continuing erosion of state funding has just added urgency to the effort.

There are two assumptions being made here that I want to pull out, because I think they are important to understanding what’s actually happening.

1.  The reorganization will save money. Will the reorganization actually save money?  For example, how does adding a new layer of bureaucracy in the Division structure save money?  So far, the Business Centers are not saving any money, and when pressed, OSU administrators have backed off the initial claim that saving money was the point.  They’ve also presented remarkably little evidence or plans as to exactly how the changes will save money.

2.  The reorganization has to happen now because of the budget situation. What is the real connection between the reorganization and the budget crisis?  In other words, is the reorganization even intended to save money in the first place, or is there something else going on?  The reorganization has clearly been in the works since before the budget crisis, which makes the claim – almost always danced around by Ray, Randhawa and Faculty Senate President Paul Doescher – that the reorganization is necessary as a response to the budget crisis highly suspect, if not outright crap.  I happen to think the reorganization is motivated by other things and that no one is talking about what those other things might be.  I really wish the GT would let Bennett Hall loose on this angle.

University administrators are using the budget situation as cover for the changes – changes are not necessarily designed to save money, but are happening for some other purpose that OSU is not being very forthcoming about.

As far as the GT’s editorial is concerned, like I said at the beginning, I was pleased by some parts and less pleased by others.  There are some very shaky assumptions being made in the claims put forth by university administrators, and no one is taking a critical, public look at them.  I would love it if the GT did so.

The Corvallis Gazette-Times and customer relations

November 1, 2009

A few days ago, I received an email from two people who work with Mid-Valley Voice, part of the website for the local papers:

This weekend we learned that MidValley Voice user account information was accessible for several days.

A list of usernames, passwords and email addresses was available in an obscure network known primarily to product testers working for our vendor, who partners with us to operate the MidValley Voice network.

After learning of the security problem, our partner immediately secured the account information. Further investigation leads us to believe that exposure was very limited, primarily by our registered users who may have searched for their own names in Google. We have received no word from customers that any accounts were compromised.

As a precaution, we suggest changing your MidValley Voice password and monitoring the e-mail account associated with our network for any problems.

Needless to say, this is annoying,  It happens, but it’s annoying.  From there, though, things went oddly south.  First, the link that had been included in the email was broken.  Considering this went out to all MVV subscribers, that’s rough.

Second, I went online to the MVV site and started to look around for a way to simply delete my entire account.  I’d rather do that and start over – I only really have an account because one is required – than simply change my password, given the nature of the problem.  I could not figure out how to delete my account.  Assuming I might have just missed it, but realizing there probably wasn’t actually a way to delete my own account (and that being a rather significant failure on the part of whoever put MVV together), I emailed the two people who had signed the email that went out to MVV subscribers.  My email:

[Name] or [Name],

Can you please let me know how to simply delete my entire account?  Given the email that just went out about passwords, I would prefer to do that.

Thanks,

Dennis Dugan

A few hours later I got this response:

Your account has been removed. – [Name]

That was the entirety of the response.  Note that I didn’t ask to have my account deleted, exactly; I asked how I could delete my own account.  This only made me suspicious there really was no way for a user to delete their own account, i.e. control their own information.  Since I had two accounts on MVV that I wanted deleted, I sent a second email:

In that case, can you also remove the account associated with [email address] (as you can see, it’s also me) and, if such a way exists, let me know how users can shut down their own accounts?

Thanks,

Dennis

Three minutes later, I got this response:

That account has been removed as well.

Helpful, sort of, but not quite what I was looking for.  In fact, at this point I began to wonder if they were intentionally ignoring the question, though I also want to stop and acknowledge that the person who was responding to me was probably having one hell of a day just trying to fix things.  Even so, I think, it would not have been too hard to address my question.

Bearing in mind all email correspondence after my initial email had been between myself and one of the two people I had emailed, later that evening I got this email from the second of the two:

Did [Name] get back to you on this?

I replied:

He deleted the accounts I requested.  He did not explain if users have the ability to delete their own accounts.

I then got the following email:

We’re not sure about that ourselves, if I understood [Name] correctly. We’ll know more from our vendor tomorrow.

This is the sort of non-definitive answer I was OK with.  I had kind of figured the answer was probably “no,” and at least “we don’t know.”  That’s life – I was more annoyed with the fact that the first person had just ignored the question entirely.  But in any case, it was getting to be late in the evening at this point, so I just kind of put it out of my head.  Sure, it’s annoying when that sort of thing happens, but it does, etc etc.

Then a friend of mine, who had asked for their account to be deleted as well, got the following email – note that I have included more of the email thread because it contains some email that went between the two people who had sent out the original email notifying users of the security breach:

I’ve removed your account.

-[Name]
—–Original Message—–
From: [Name]
Sent: Friday, October 30, 2009
To: [Name]

Subject: FW: Removal of Mid-Valley Voice Account

Another one I just came across. [emphasis added]

—–Original Message—–
From: [Friend]
Sent: Friday, October 30, 2009
To: [Name]
Subject: Removal of Mid-Valley Voice Account

Can you please remove my Mid-Valley Voice account?… I will re-register at a later date, but I was not able to delete my account.
This entire situation is very frustrating.

Thank you.
[Friend]

At this point I just started laughing, because not only was I not only not the only person who had the problem of not being able to delete their own account, but the line left in the email correspondence sent to said friend of mine sounded like the two people were annoyed with the users who had requested their accounts be deleted after the company had leaked the password and other information.

This just kind of compounds the underlying problem, which is that users don’t have the ability to delete their own accounts.  Add in staff who display a tone of annoyance at users, and, well, it’s just terrible customer relations that made a bad situation worse.

The funny thing about all of this, though, is that I don’t actually place much blame on the two staff in question for the problem (note that I have not mentioned their names, though they will certainly be able to recognize their own email correspondence).  First, as I mentioned, they are undertrained in this area.  Second, they are overworked.  Third – and probably most importantly – they are under pressure from above to do things a certain way that may have led to the security breach in the first place.  And fourth, I bet at least one of them was having really bad day in trying to deal with this, and probably chose to do what they could in the moment – and I appreciate the speed in which that happened.

None of this excuses the terrible customer relations, but I think it goes a long way towards explaining them.  It would be better if the parent company a) actually hired people who were formally trained in this kind of web work, rather than rely on a converted reporter, and b) hired enough staff to do this right.  Oh, and also c) get some decent software that allows for user control over account creation and deletion, but that’s oddly almost not worth mentioning – I don’t actually expect Lee Enterprises, the parent company, to allow their staff to do something like that.

I’ve never really liked the MVV site.  It’s always struck me as too little too late in the world of social media platforms, and more designed to generate ad revenue than anything else.  I do acknowledge, though – and again – that this is not necessarily the fault of any local staff, but the result of bad corporate policy.  That’s what needs to change, the local staff’s crankiness notwithstanding.