Gordon Gee gets WSJed!

Gordon Gee in the WSJVandy people, what did you think of the Wall Street Journal story yesterday on our bow tie sporting chancellor? Excerpts are below the break.

Though the article was primarily about a perceived lack of oversight regarding Gee’s spending and compensation by the Board of Trustees, perhaps the most interesting fact to be revealed is that his wife, Professor Constance Gee, received a formal reprimand for smoking marijuana in the university-owned chancellor’s mansion. The couple claimed at the time that it was to treat an inner ear ailment but are not commenting now.

I’m all for Professor Gee’s right to smoke at home, medicinally or not, and I can also understand not wanting to comment directly on the matter. I think it would be very neat, however, if she used this opportunity to come forward in support of liberalizing drug laws, as she has not been shy about promoting left-leaning policies in the past. And who better to do that than the wife of a teetotaling, LDS chancellor of a top 20 university?

For the record, there were 15 arrests and 25 disciplinary referrals for drug violations on campus in 2004.

The second most controversial part of the article is the university’s cozy parking contract awarded to Central Parking Corp., a company whose executive chair Monroe Carell sits on the Board. I remember a friend from The Torch wanting to investigate this years ago and am glad to see the story in print. The contract was never put to competitive bid, as I believe it should have been, and there may have been some undue pressure on the athletic department to continue hiring the corporation even after it wanted to switch to a new provider. (The next contract has been put up for bidding.) That said, blogger Donald Luskin provides a good perspective on just how paltry the amount in question is given Carell’s $40 million worth of donations to the university. The parking contract may be a sweet deal at the margin for Carell, but even with a discount rate of zero Luskin calculates that it would take nearly 700 years for him to break even with the university. See also Luskin’s take on Senator Grassley’s desire to federally limit university compensation.

The last major item in the WSJ story is the lack of oversight for Gee’s renovation and entertainment budget, which is very generous. It’s hard to argue that Gee’s parties aren’t good for university fundraising, however. Under his leadership Vanderbilt recently completed a $1.75 billion capital campaign. It sounds like some additional oversight could help ensure greater discretion and a better return on investment, but as long as the money keeps rolling in Gee’s entertainment budget should continue to be large.

I’ve made it clear in the past that I have reservations about a lot of what Gee’s doing and am glad to see him being reined in by the Board and the press, but the WSJ article seems that it may have focused a bit too much on the negative while not giving enough mention of what he’s accomplished. To that end, Vanderbilt has posted a rebuttal of sorts here.

Some excerpts of the article are below. Let me know if you want the whole thing.

The opening of the article:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — At Vanderbilt University, the board is trying to rein in star chancellor E. Gordon Gee, without running him off.

Since arriving here in 2000, the 62-year-old Mr. Gee has dramatically boosted the 133-year-old school’s academic standing and overseen fund raising of more than $1 billion. Mr. Gee’s $1.4 million annual compensation is among the highest for U.S. university leaders.

But supervision of Mr. Gee by the university’s 44-member Board of Trust has “probably been a little loosey-goosey,” says trustee Edward Malloy, a former president of the University of Notre Dame. Vanderbilt paid more than $6 million, never approved by the full board, to renovate and enlarge Braeburn, the Greek-revival university-owned mansion where Mr.
Gee and his wife, Constance, live. The university pays for the Gees’ frequent parties and personal chef there. The annual tab exceeds $700,000. Some trustees’ concern was aroused when they learned that Mrs. Gee was using marijuana at the mansion. The chancellor told some trustees she was using it for an inner-ear ailment.

Now change is afoot. Trustees recently created a subcommittee to monitor Mr. Gee’s spending. For the first time, the full board will get reports about his expenditures and pay package. A second new board committee is scrutinizing potential conflicts of interest and likely will look at the university’s longtime contract with a parking company in which a trustee holds a big stake.

On the mansion:

Meanwhile, the university began renovating Braeburn, which was built in 1915. The project, which included new plumbing, heating and electrical systems, expanded the mansion by 3,700 square feet, to a total of 19,700. Construction permits estimated the cost at $2.1 million. But the final tab exceeded $6 million, according to a person close to the situation.

Mr. Hall says he knew the building was in poor repair but the extent of the work was a “surprise.” Mr. Gee says, “We indicated some of the things that we thought would be important, including creating a space for all the entertaining we were going to do.” However, he says he didn’t keep tabs on the project’s cost because he didn’t want to be perceived as trying to shape the project for his personal gain. “I was told it was done right, it was done well and it was done on budget,” he recollects. In hindsight, he agrees he should have learned the amount and kept the full board apprised.

Still, Mr. Gee says, “we paid for that house over and over and over again.” He notes that the university has raised more than $1.2 billion since he arrived and says, “A lot of that was raised in that house.” Some of the money went to build the endowment, which has grown to about $3 billion from $2 billion in 2000.

Mr. Gee estimates that Braeburn is home to several hundred events a year. The events range from five-guest dinners served by a waiter to large fund raisers for Nashville-area nonprofits where Vanderbilt pays the bill. Improving community ties “is a very good use of university resources,” Mr. Gee says. “We don’t live here to have parties for ourselves.”

In some cases, the connections to Vanderbilt are more tenuous. Three years ago, Mr. Gee and his wife hosted a party to celebrate a memoir written by their friend Marshall Chapman, a rock singer, songwriter and Vanderbilt alumna. Ms. Chapman says 300-plus guests dined at tables covered with tie-dyed cloths while she sold about 65 copies of her book. The party cost Vanderbilt more than $15,000, according to the person familiar with the situation.

On the marijuana:

In the fall of 2005, university employees discovered that Constance Gee, a tenured associate professor of public policy and education, kept marijuana at Braeburn and was using it there, according to people familiar with the matter. A few weeks later, several trustees and a senior university official confronted Mr. Gee in his office, telling the chancellor he shared responsibility for allowing marijuana on university property, the person familiar with the situation recalls.

Trembling, the chancellor replied, “I’ve been worried to death over this,” according to this person. Mr. Gee said his wife smoked marijuana to relieve an inner-ear ailment, this person says. The Gees decline to comment on the incident.

Mrs. Ingram, Vanderbilt’s board chairman, formally reprimanded Mrs. Gee for possessing and using the illegal drug. The matter was “handled appropriately and satisfactorily,” says Mrs. Ingram, who is chairman of Ingram Industries Inc., a conglomerate with interests in book distribution and shipping.

[Thanks to Renee for the tip.]


Better than credit card roulette

Your handy site of the day is BillMonk.com, an application for keeping track of shared bills or loans among friends. Add on as many debts as you want and when it’s time to settle up, BillMonk spits out the amounts everyone owes each other. The interface is admirably simple and the service integrates with Facebook and text messaging.

I got my roommates to sign up last night and am already glad I did. Travel partners, friends eating out , and stingy daters will also find it useful.

[Via BoingBoing. Earlier post on credit card roulette here.]


Getting Baked and Wired

Ten months. So close to working at the same job for a full year. But last week I gave notice at Open City and accepted a job with Baked and Wired in Georgetown. B/W has been in business as a successful bakery for five years while doing a small coffee operation on the side. The owners recently decided to expand and improve the coffee side of the operation, upgrading their equipment and buying their beans from Counter Culture. They’ve hired me to be, for lack of an official title, the coffee and tea specialist to take them forward. In other words, I finally have a real job. (Hi, Mom!)

I’ll be working several days a week behind the bar, but will also be doing training, customer education, blend development, marketing, research, and generally improving the coffee program. As a primarily to go place with only paper cups, they have a long way to go, but they’ve already demonstrated a commitment to improving through their investments in equipment, beans, and staff. They’re also willing to target a select customer base rather than appeal to everyone. They eliminated 20 oz. espresso drinks, don’t have blenders, and don’t offer a bunch of flavored concoctions that distract from the coffee. With a Starbucks and a Barnes and Noble Cafe nearby, they’re aiming to succeed by being better.

(On the subject of focusing and limiting, I highly recommend this essay on the food weblog tastingmenu. What the author says about how a good restaurant should help its patrons enjoy a memorable dining experience translates well into the coffee world. American coffee drinkers tend to prefer the neutral and covered up rather than the complex and exposed. This is because they’re used to lousy coffee. Shops that offer better have some outreach to do if they’re going to build up a loyal customer base.)

In addition to the creative freedom the job offers, my life will be personally improved by getting better pay, being on salary, and getting weekends off. Getting up at 4:30 am on Sundays to go to work is a lifestyle choice I’ve been ok with, but it’s not one I’m going to miss. Proximity to the best beer bar in DC is another nice bonus.

B/W is located at 1052 Thomas Jefferson St., a half block toward the water from the Barnes and Noble on M. Currently closed on weekends, open from 7-6 Monday through Friday. The place has free wi-fi but seating is currently limited. Folks on Don Rockwell dig the baked goods.


iLiberty launches

Hey, remember when I used to write about politics sometimes? Back in May I made vague reference to a site I’d been doing some work for. That site is finally public. It is iLiberty.org, the newest project from the Institute for Humane Studies.

iLiberty celebrates individual freedom and responsibility in the context of issues dealing with paternalism, the nanny state, and civil liberties. From the “about us” page:

Individual liberty and personal responsibility have been challenged in recent years by forces that seek to restrict our personal choices “for our own good.” These forces see a “paternalistic,” or parenting, role for government. The kind of government they seek — one that controls our life choices for our own ostensible benefit — is often called the “nanny state.”

iLiberty examines current debates between proponents of the nanny state and advocates of personal choice. These debates tend to fall into three broad categories: those that concern our minds, our bodies, and our homes.

Our Minds
Should political speech be restricted? What about speech on campus? Should we be protected from offensive remarks or images? What about commercial speech?

Our Bodies
When are we old enough to decide what to eat or drink? Should we have the right to decide for ourselves whether to smoke cigarettes? Or to engage in recreational drug use? Should individuals be allowed to make their own decisions about health care? How about risky activities, such as rock climbing?

Our Homes
In the privacy of our own homes, should we be able to make our own decisions? Do we have the right to engage in sexual activities without government interference? For that matter, should the government be telling us what kind of hair dryer or lawn mower we are allowed to use?

In addition to longer content, the site also features a blog and essay contest. Check it out.

Most of my contribitions are unattributed. Of the attributed pieces, the first is a review of Eric Oliver’s book Fat Politics: The Real Story Behind America’s Obesity Epidemic. The other is an essay on the concept of autonomy. I wrote these months ago so the content’s not that fresh in my mind, but if you have any feedback leave it in the comments.


Further fruit snack fibbery

Misleadingly marketed fruit snacks are becoming something of a bête noire for the EatFoo bloggers. Back in August, Adam got burned by some not so Simpsony Simpsons fruit snacks. Then this weekend I fell victim to Maynard’s Wine Gums.

I came across the wine gums at the nifty British Goods Store in Clarendon. With pictures on the package showing port, sherry, champagne, burgundy, and claret gummies, I was looking forward to trying them out. I was taken aback when I went to the counter and the cashier told me they cost just over six dollars. I should have walked away then, but the combined pressure of not wanting to look cheap and the idea that such expensive gum candies must really, really taste like wine caused me to pay up.

I could not have been more wrong. The wine gums, while tasty, were nothing like wine. And the flavors weren’t even correlated with the names; “burgundy” was just as likely to be green as dark red. What gives?

It turns out that wine gums were never supposed to taste like wine. In fact, confectioner Charles Maynard was a teetotaler. They were named “wine gums” because eating them is “similar to the experience of savouring a fine wine.”

I guess if you grow up British you know these things. Me, I just feel like I spent way too much money on a pack of gummies. Damn you, Maynard’s!

[This post was originally published at EatFoo(d) on 9/19/06.]


I’m not drinking, I’m investing

The methodology of the study is obscured in the article, but I’m happy to accept the conclusion of the authors that consuming alcohol leads to higher income. Economics professor Edward Stringham and researcher Bethany Peters argue that drinking causes people to develop social capital, increasing their long-term earnings:

“Social drinkers are out networking, building relationships, and adding contacts to their BlackBerries that result in bigger paychecks.”

The authors acknowledged their study, funded by the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think tank, contradicted research released in 2000 by the Harvard School of Public Health…

“Drinkers may be able to socialize more with clients and co-workers, giving drinkers an advantage in important relationships,” the researchers said.

“Drinking may also provide individuals with opportunities to learn people, business, and social skills.”

They also said these conclusions provide arguments against policies aimed at curbing alcohol use on university campuses and public venues.

“Not only do anti-alcohol policies reduce drinkers’ fun, but they may also decrease earnings,” the study said.

“One of the unintended consequences of alcohol restrictions is that they push drinking into private settings. This occurred during the Alcohol Prohibition of 1920-1933 and is happening on college campuses today. By preventing people from drinking in public, anti-alcohol policies eliminate one of the most important aspects of drinking: increased social capital.”

Hat tip to Jeff, who says, “If you need me, I’ll be on my back porch drinking a fifth of whiskey and waiting for the money to roll in.”


NYTimes link generator

This is old but useful. The New York Times link generator creates permanent links to Times articles using the site’s RSS feed. Designed for bloggers, the links it makes ensure readers are never sent to abstracts; they always get the full content. Thanks to Dave from Smelling the Coffee and Seeing the Forest for pointing this out to me.

I like that the Times has given bloggers this tool. It almost makes up for turning their op-ed section into paid content. Almost.


Book meme from Ben

Just when I was feeling out of things to write about, Ben saves me with a meme.

1. One book that changed your life: That’s an easy one. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. I find most of her writing ponderous now, but when I read it high school it was compelling. Since I had the good luck to grow up without religion it was my first flirtation with an all-embracing ideology. Fortunately I moved on to other things, but it’s safe to say that without Atlas… no Torch, no IHS seminars, no Cato internship. And no eventual burn out that led to becoming a barista? Perhaps. The alternate life in which I didn’t read this book while young is hard to picture.

2. One book that you’ve read more than once: The Great Gatsby. In high school I hated it. Like one Amazon reviewer, I considered it “no more than a lengthy description of the doings of fops.” Re-reading it in a philosophy and lit class at Vanderbilt I finally recognized it as the great American novel.

3. One book you’d want on a desert island: Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Its praise of solitude would be ideal for a desert island and its aphoristic style would be good for non-sequential browsing.

4. One book that made you laugh: Steve Martin’s The Pleasure of My Company.

5. One book that made you cry: Not sure I’ve every been physically moved to tears by a book. If I have, it was probably from Of Mice and Men or To Kill a Mockingbird.

6. One book that you wish had been written: An additional novel by Peter Taylor.

7. One book you wish had never been written: The Catcher in the Rye. There are probably novels with protoganonists less likeable than Holden Caulfield, but I haven’t read them.

8. One book you’re currently reading: (You could just look at the sidebar.) The Medici Giraffe, a series of historical vignettes detailing how exotic animals have been used by people in power to add to their prestige and cement diplomatic relations. It’s well-written and a fascinating jumping off point for the various tales. Plus the title of the epilogue — “Little people in furry suits” — makes me giggle. I assume the chapter is a musing on anthropomorphism, but I like to interpret it more comically.

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read: Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. It sounds fascinating, but the equations and code are intimidating for someone as poor at math as I am.

I’m not sure I have the blog cred right now to tag anyone Ben hasn’t already tagged. But if you want to play along, go for it.


For good ethnic food, head west

When people ask me why I live in Virginia despite working in DC, one of the answers is that I’d miss the restaurants out here too much if moved into the District. DC has the high-end trendy places, but Virginia has the hole in the wall ethnic restaurants I love to go to. And people in Virginia always seem willing to explore the city. Getting DC residents to come out here is like pulling teeth. Living in the suburbs provides the best of both worlds.

Writing in the Washington Post, GMU economist and ethnic food expert Tyler Cowen devotes an entire column to this “exurbanization” of good ethnic dining in DC.

Of course, the District, with its lobbyists and international organizations, continues to be a center for expense-account dining. But the good ethnic restaurants downtown are either trendy (think Rasika and Indique, both of which reinterpret Indian for upmarket American eaters), or cater to the wealthy international crowd (such as the Spanish Taberna del Alabardero near the International Monetary Fund and World Bank). For the best buys, though, you have to get in the car and head out to the sprawl. These days, the most authentic, spiciest food comes at cheap, ugly strip malls, far from the District and miles from the Metro.

The article provides an interesting look at the diffusion of ethnic restuarants in the DC area, describing how they have shifted from urban enclaves to suburban malls as rents in the District have risen and immigrants have become more mobile. Read the whole thing.

Foo writers and readers in the DC area should also check out Tyler’s dining guide. It’s a great way to find obscure places to try out.

[This post was originally published at EatFoo(d) on 9/3/06.]