Friday, April 28, 2006

Official secrecy, Exeter and upscale, downtown Hopewell

Mark Dorroh

The handful of people who showed up at the Tuesday, April 18, forum for Ward 1 Hopewell City Council candidates heard a few truths we'd all benefit from giving ear.

Before the forum even started, Mayor Vanessa Justice had a few crisp words to say on the subject of what Dr. Henry Kissinger used to call "the art of the possible."

Justice addressed at length the oft-repeated canard that city council does altogether too much of its business behind closed doors, especially concerning potential investors and developers. To illustrate what happens in the absence of secrecy, Madam Mayor told of a few incidents, sans names and dates, of what happened when council negotiations hit the street before they were supposed to. Each time confidential information wound up dangling on the grapevine, would-be investors took off like scalded cats.

Justice also explained to the wannabe city councilors that there is a wealth of educational opportunity out there involving matters the well informed local legislator really needs to understand. Especially in the area of land use policy, the knowledge required to make good decisions doesn't come naturally. And even with the advice of a topnotch staff, which our city certainly has, it can't hurt for council members to learn the lingo and logic behind modern zoning ordinance.

So far, Justice says only she and Councilor Bob Smith have taken the courses, although Milton Martin, the city's former director of development, is already well-versed in the subject matter. She implored the three candidates to sign up for the classes and bone up on the knowledge if they won the election.

When the forum began, the format called for the candidates to ask each other questions. Unfortunately, they seemed to spend entirely too much time delivering a manifesto prior to asking an actual question, so I left early. Before I did however, I heard some very unorthodox thoughts voiced by candidate Craig Gilkison.

Questioned on his support of the recently voted-down amendment to the Exeter property redevelopment deal, an amendment which would have allowed 300 upscale townhouses and a Food Lion grocery store to be constructed on the long-dormant land, Gilkison stated flatly, "City councilors made a mistake. They turned down a brand-new neighborhood of upscale buildings - prices were to begin at $170,000, $175,000 - which is somewhat above where most of Hopewell housing is priced now. [That new neighborhood] would have brought 700 - 800 people to within walking distance of downtown and the Beacon Theatre. And why would you not want that to happen?"

Gilkison said he'd asked some of the business owners on East Broadway their opinion, "and they were just amazed that the city wouldn't want to add a brand-new neighborhood to their area."

In response to public comments that the townhouse starting prices were well above the average prices of existing Hopewell housing stock, Gilkison said, "People in Hopewell can't afford those? Well duh! You're not marketing to people in Hopewell. It was to be a new community, an addition to Hopewell."

But would anyone want to live in a small, relatively expensive townhouse home set in an industrial landscape?

"Sure," he said. "All you have to do is look around. In downtown Richmond, they're doing lofts, they've been doing lofts in Chicago for 30 years. People are moving into cities now, not out of them."

Gilkison, a career Navy officer, cited his experiences while living in Europe as a type of municipal planning American cities could employ to lure young, affluent families to areas where they could live, work, shop and be entertained without having to even own a car.

It will take years to tell if he's right or wrong, but Gilkison has at least broken ranks with his fellow candidates on the issue, saying something we hadn't already heard.

Your Humble Correspondent is not sure for whom he would vote if he lived in Ward 1. Each candidate has much to offer: Gilkison, while joyously cultivating the image of a loose cannon on deck during his dustup with the Port and Dock Commission, is the candidate I find most closely attuned to my own libertarian neo-capitalist sympathies, Christina Bailey is both goodhearted and very bright, and Cheryl Maida seems the most familiar with the basic understandings of how municipal government works.

But regardless of whom Ward 1 residents elect, all Hopewellians should spend a bit of time thinking abut what Gilkison said April 18. It was this: The March 28 city council decision sent packing $69,000,000 worth of investment, plus the possibility of settling some 300 upper income families in a neighborhood within walking distance of our struggling downtown with its burgeoning ranks of empty storefronts.

Strangely, out of all the incumbents and challengers to be sorted through by voters on May 2, only Craig Gilkison has noticed that perhaps that was not the smartest thing in the world to do.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Scholastic self-respect, grade inflation and tenured True Believers

About this time each year, some members of the chattering classes ask the question, "Why should anybody care about the rankings, published by a second-rank national newsweekly, of the best colleges in the U.S.?"

Until this year, I had no reason to take issue with the implied slight on U.S. News and World Report's "Best Colleges in the U.S." survey. But then I read an opinion piece authored by U.S.N.&W.R. Editor-in-Chief Mortimer B. Zuckerman in the April 10 "America's Best Graduate Schools" issue.

In it, he defines what his publication expects of a great American university, specifically by explaining how he believes one of the greatest is falling down on the job.

The travails of Harvard President Lawrence Summers have been well-publicized. Zuckerman notes the standard reasons given in most accounts of his fall from grace include his management style and some less-than-diplomatic remarks made last year suggesting boys and girls may have different life expectations and are sometimes not equally gifted in all areas of intellectual interest. The PC crowd pounced on those remarks as proof Summers was a clueless sexist.

The resulting hue and cry seems to have been the straw that broke the prexy's back; not long after his unorthodox ideas hit the fan, Summers tendered his resignation. But according to Zuckerman, he was already on the hit list of a cohort of tenured professors enraged by his request that they teach a few undergraduate classes. One professor reportedly responded, "No self-respecting scholar would want to teach such a course."

That statement is so rife with revelations about the mindset of modern upper-income intellectuals it's hard to know where to begin deconstructing it.

Nonetheless, let's start here: My understanding is, most if not all professors began their quest for tenure by teaching 101-level classes. Did their own scholastic self-respect come to them only after they acquired guaranteed lifetime employment and started dragging down six figures? In addition to that extreme weirdness, issues of campus leadership arise when full professors teach only students who have already copped their sheepskins.

Here's a loaded question: Can this generation of great thinkers produce the next generation of great thinkers without mining the mother lode of smart freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors? I'd imagine not.

And since many freshmen choose their university specifically because of the great minds in residence, why not give them a little taste of the good stuff up front? If nothing else, the astute professor might lure a few of the cleverest and most adaptable into a discipline not initially identified as an area of major interest, but one for which they might have unrecognized, even genius-class aptitude.

But Zuckerman writes that at Harvard the tenured profs can't be bothered with teaching bright beginners, in part because they would prefer to teach post-grad classes "that tend to track their own research or even their latest book ... "

The predictable result is the production of all too many college-educated Americans unprepared to think, work or live in the real world. That in turn presents quite a thorny little problem in areas of fundamental scholastic competence. "Summers," writes Zuckerman, "was rightly critical of Harvard's own 'solution.'"

That solution was giving everybody high grades, leading to 91 percent of Harvard grads being awarded honors.

Grade inflation! It isn't just for failing public schools anymore!

So if the top instructors in our best institutions of higher learning aren't teaching fundamentals, what are they teaching? Although Zuckerman doesn't make mention of it, there's a growing body of evidence to suggest that on a lot of campuses, they're busy teaching blinkered allegiance to a belief system based in the notion that class struggle is the primary force driving human history. Inquiry into the premises, historical facts and logic supporting that belief system is not welcome. A number of independent reports indicate PC's Golden Rule, "Question Authority!" seldom applies to academic authorities.

If you are a college student, try this test: The next time one of your professors baldly asserts that, oh, say, "capitalism is inherently evil," ask him/her why the history of the 20th century unambiguously chronicles the bloodstained failure of every alternative economic system.

Then ask why many of Europe's social democracies have more or less permanent 9 percent unemployment rates and ethnic strife to rival that of Mississippi's Freedom Summer.

Then duck and cover.

Word on the street is, you'll be lucky to get off with a heady dose of "sharp sarcasm in the classroom" from a snarling, sneering, thoroughly cheesed-off academic authoritarian. That's the sort of penalty paid these days by students who cast aspersions on the infallibility of dogmatic, highly-paid, tenured True Believers.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Please hold your applause, we're trying to have a civilization here

By Mark Dorroh

I witnessed a figurative lynching the evening of March 28. I saw three men of integrity and good will vilified, slandered and finally run out of town by a self-righteous (is there any other kind?) mob.

Just to rub salt in their wounds, when the representatives of a consortium willing to risk 69,000,000 of their dollars on the future of our city left the Tuesday, March 28 meeting of Hopewell City Council, the standing-room-only crowd burst into what could only be interpreted as "goodbye and good riddance" applause.

I half expected a spontaneous chorus of "Ding Dong, The Witch Is Dead" to break out, complete with four-part harmony, full orchestration and dancing in the aisles.

For perspective, let's analyze briefly what these guys, representatives of HDC LLD, Harper Associates and Prospect Homes, had done to deserve all that public opprobrium: They submitted a plan to resurrect a piece of land, a source of Hopewell scandal and misery for the past two decades, from its moribund state and get it back on the tax rolls.

The nerve! Tar-and-feathering would be too good for 'em!

Strange. The last time I checked, the majority faith in these United States taught "hate the sin, love the sinner."

Or, if you prefer the more secular version, ask yourself, "If we can't disagree without being disagreeable, what are we teaching our kids about conflict resolution?"

Not that there weren't legitimate concerns over the viability of their plan. There were. It was not what was said, but the way in which it was said that made me fear for the collective soul of my favorite Old Dominion city.

Full disclosure: I am far from personally unacquainted with the less admirable emotional reactions of suffering humanity. I've spoken, out of spite and out of turn, on more than one public occasion. My saving grace is my absolute, unwavering refusal to pile on.

The impulse to go with the mob is as natural as it is unacceptable. Big groups of angry people tend to feed off one another's outrage to the point that a sort of social critical mass may be achieved. Then we say and do things which would never occur to us as individuals.

But pile on we did, not once but twice in two weeks. And it's not just carpetbagging Richmond city slickers who caught the sharp edge of the Hopewell tongue over this particular issue. Elected officials and city staff have also been verbally roughed up by the hyper-alarmed Hopewell yeomanry.

Remember city council's first public comment period on the Exeter site agreement, held March 14? I sure do. Some in the crowd that night seemed not to understand the difference between a government meeting and a videotaping of "WWF Smackdown." These normally well mannered souls considered it acceptable to interrupt, catcall, disrupt proceedings with gratuitous applause and fire off imprecations at public servants.

The capper came after an very long public comment period during which everyone with something to say was afforded ample opportunity to say it. At the end of that time, council members are legally obligated to discuss the issue among themselves, which they did. And while council members did not interrupt the public, altogether too many members of the public failed to reciprocate.

At one point, City Attorney Edwin "Ted" Wilmot had to request silence of the muttering crowd. "I didn't want to offend anyone," Wilmot said a few days later, "but I have to hear what's said by members of council in order to perform my job duties."

It was a reasonable request. Nonetheless, several disgruntled individuals expressed their disapproval loudly, including one gentleman sitting behind Your Humble Correspondent who grumbled, loud enough to be heard across the room, "We're the citizens!"

Yes, we are, and we had an hour or more to say our piece. After that, it becomes somebody else's turn to speak. Our first grade teachers explained this concept many years ago. It would seem that too few of us committed to memory those words of wisdom.

Memo to Hopewell: if you hate what your public officials are doing, vote them out of office. But please, when they're doing their level best to discharge their sworn duties, don't express yourself in the same fashion you would at a cockfight.

As a prophylactic measure, I'm thinking of submitting to Delegate Ingram and Senator Quayle a proposed statute requiring citizen study of - and testing on - Robert's Rules of Order. Certification would be required of anyone who wanted to attend a public input session. I know it would never get through our General Assembly, but I believe it would be a blessing if it did.

If this all seems strange, I can only say the practice of taking turns when speaking at a public meeting is one which has been manifestly demonstrated to be in the best interests of all.

Or, as famously articulated a few years back by a character in a highly-rated TV sitcom, "We're trying to have a civilization here!"