February 12, 2016

Get an education, not the Confederate myth

Confederate monument in Lancaster Court House, Virginia, from Gerald L. Cooper’s book, 
"On Scholarship – From An Empty Room at Princeton.” —Photo by author. 

As I was growing up in a simple house in the tiny town of Lancaster Court House, Virginia, from 1935 to 1950, I could not avoid a daily viewing of the Confederate monument across the road, a veritable landmark beside Virginia route 3. The monument stood tall in the midst of an iron-fenced enclosure, about forty yards west of my home, just across state-designated “Historyland Highway,” which links the Northern Neck’s historic sites — King Carter’s Christ Church, George Washington’s Wakefield and the Lees’ Stratford Hall — to Richmond, Fredericksburg, Alexandria and Washington.

As a pre-teen, I did not spend my time contemplating that marble obelisk, but I knew it was there, looming as a great gray eminence even in bright sunshine. Eventually I gained an understanding of what it stood for, with the help of my schoolteacher mother. She also gave me an idea of what it didn’t represent—at least in our household. She had a friend over in Corrotoman who would genuflect before the monument, and any time she encountered a portrait of Robert E. Lee. (Corrotoman is also a peninsula derived from that river, which was named for the local Native American tribe; “cor-ro-toe-man.")

“My dad’s from Neola, Iowa,” I used to say, when budding southern patriots at elementary school got me into a corner, defending their Confederate cause. My dad had died by the time I was ten, of a heart attack in 1945, so I had to find new ways to defend myself. That too was an early opportunity to be different.

My mother grew up in the lower Northern Neck — first Northumberland and then offshoot Lancaster County. She was a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). One of her responsibilities as a member and recording secretary was placing small Confederate flags around the monument on Memorial Day or Decoration Day, as it was called in the 1940s. She had a supply of Confederate flags, each measuring about 15 x 15 inches, mounted on three-foot wooden, quarter-inch staffs. She would put the flags on display for the designated day each year by pushing the staffs into the ground at each corner of the monument’s enclosure, outside the surrounding iron fence.

More than once in my early years I absconded with a flag from Mom's storage closet to show off to a friend; I got caught, and was punished for the trespass. “The flags aren’t expensive or sacred,” my mom said, “but they are not playthings, and they belong to the UDC, not us.”

The Confederate monument had been erected in 1872 to honor the men of Lancaster who had died for the Southern cause. The Ladies Memorial Association of Lancaster County had raised funds for construction of the monument. The names of the 111 local men who gave their lives in the military service of the Confederate States of America (CSA) were engraved in the white marble that forms the upper section of the obelisk. These fallen warriors’ names were at first the only honorees on the monument.

In a pictorial history titled, "Virginia’s Historic Courthouses," I learned that Lancaster was the first county in Virginia to erect a Confederate monument after the war, and also the last county to complete a new courthouse,  before the Civil War in 1861.

Not long after the monument was finished, the names of 346 survivors were also added to the memorial. Three bronze plaques at the base display the names of one hundred or so Lancaster County men who served in the Civil War and lived to come home—including my grandfather. These men were designated “Survivors of the War of 1861-1865” on the plaques. This statement conformed to the prevailing notion in the South that the term Civil War was unacceptable in describing the conflict.

Created by white Southerners to rationalize the South’s bitter defeat, the so-called “Lost Cause” movement reached its zenith in the 1870s. Lost cause advocates used such words as noble, righteous, and chivalrous to describe aspects of the Confederacy in the hope of eradicating the pain of defeat and the ignominy of Reconstruction.

Thus the Confederate monument’s revisionist symbolism in history became a fact of life in Lancaster County by the time I was born, in 1935 — just 70 years after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865.

March 20, 2015

Under Baker Duncan, Woodberry Forest School began to be managed as a modern business

Under the leadership of its fourth headmaster, A. Baker Duncan, Woodberry Forest School came to be managed as a modern business, beginning in the mid-1960s. Innovations included investing short-term surplus funds (from tuitions and fundraising) in higher-yielding, safe investments through the Common Fund and other safe sources; setting up lines of credit (for capital projects) favorable to the School based on its historic balances and fundraising ability; and generally leveraging the School's strong financial position — to the benefit of Woodberry Forest, rather than to the profit of small, local banks, where short-term surplus funds had formerly languished.

It was enlightened moves and policies such as these which changed the financial outlook at Woodberry Forest, and led to future prosperity. If change had not occurred, the school would not have (a) protected and expanded the value of its existing assets, especially by retaining professional investment counsel; (b) gained the confidence of its wealthier constituents by using such counsel and other wise business management practices, and (c) created a climate and performance history to attract endowment gifts and grants that would eventually exceed $250 million by 2012.

Many nonprofit organizations pay lip service to such cliches as frugal spending, long-range planning, and wise investment. At Woodberry Forest School, beginning in the mid 1960s, the trustees and administration began to give measurable emphasis to the school's motto: "A posse ad esse" - From potential into fulfillment. Substantial change was evident, both in the academic areas and in the financial management of the school. 

Woodberry's administration began to measure and compare its performance statistics with schools of similar student enrollments, size of faculty, endowments, financial aid and operating budgets. These friendly-competitor comparable schools were located primarily in New England, though Woodberry's oldest rival, Episcopal High School in Alexandria, was always in the mix.

Baker Duncan had brought to Woodberry's headmaster position the unique qualities of business experience (in his native Texas), his high-level formal education (from Woodberry, Yale and U. of Texas-Austin), his indomitable personal drive, and a full commitment to Woodberry's leadership among national independent schools. 

It was my privilege to be hired by Baker in 1966, and to serve with the Woodberry Forest faculty and administration, as well as to be secretary of its board of trustees, 1967-77. These opportunities provided remarkable experiences for me and constituted a high-point of my career in education. I have attempted to capture some of these experiences in my book,  On Scholarship – From An Empty Room at Princeton, which I published in 2008. 

Thanks to Baker Duncan, Woodberry Forest was — and still is — a tremendous learning place for hundreds of students, and for many faculty members who come to teach and are open to learn, as well.

 Gerry Cooper 

Gerald L. Cooper

Above is a photo of former Headmaster, A. Baker Duncan, taken in August 2014 near Boulder, Colorado, where the Duncan family have created a summer camp for young people, operated by the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Texas, of San Antonio.

The Sweet Briar Dilemma: Will Predatory Lending Take Down More Colleges?

Author Alan Smith is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Associate Director of Networked Initiatives.
After 114 years of educating young women in rural Virginia, Sweet Briar College recently announced that the 2015 academic year would be its last. It’s closing its doors, administrators say, because its model is no longer sustainable.
There are plenty of people coming out of the woodwork to explain Sweet Briar's problems. Dr. James F. Jones, the school’s president, claims that there are simply not enough people who want to attend an all-women's rural liberal arts school (though application numbers and some pundits disagree); he blames the discount that the school was giving to low-income students for the institutional budget shortfall. Billionaire investor Mark Cuban says that Sweet Briar has fallen victim to the student loan bubble and that students are unwilling to commit the money to attend, which sounds a lot like the blame-the-homeowner narrative that came out of the 2008 financial crisis.  Others are wringing their hands that small colleges in general are doomed.   
These takes are varied and complex, but they are all missing an important point: that predatory banking practices and bad financial deals played an important and nearly invisible role in precipitating the school’s budget crisis.  
A quick look at Sweet Briar’s audited financial reports (easily available in public records) reveals enough confusing and obfuscating financial-speak to last a lifetime, but a few days of digging did manage to unearth a series of troubling things.  
A single swap on a bond issued in June 2008 cost Sweet Briar more then a million dollars in payments to Wachovia before the school exited the swap in September 2011. While it is unclear exactly why they chose 2011 to pay off the remainder of the bond early, they paid a $730,119 termination fee. For a school that was sorely strapped for cash, these fines and the fees that accrued around this deal (which are hard to definitively pick out from financial documents) couldn't have come at a worse time.  
Just how big a deal are these numbers? The school has a relatively small endowment even among small liberal arts colleges: currently valued at about $88 million, with less then a quarter of that total completely unrestricted and free to spend. But in 2014, the financial year that appears to have been the final straw for Sweet Briar, total operating revenues were $34.8 million and total operating expenditures were $35.4 million, which means that the deficit the school is running is actually smaller than the cost of any of the bad deals it’s gotten itself into with banks. 
All of this puts in a very stark light the fact that the early retirement of debt (in other words, the losses the school suffered on the overall value of the bonds it had taken out because it decided to pay them back early) cost the school over $9 million in 2011 and more than $13 million in 2012. Why did the school accrue these costs? We have no way of knowing if it was bad advice from bankers, negligent trustee members covering a mistake, or a well-intentioned plan that hit at the wrong time.  
What we can say, though, is that a million dollars here and a million dollars there adds up to real money that was desperately needed as Sweet Briar fought to stay afloat.  
We know that Wall Street collects higher fees on risky and complicated deals involving variable rate debt and hedging instruments, like the ones found in Sweet Briar's last few decades of financials, than from fixed rate debt deals. We know that they add on things like credit enhancements, further driving up the costs. We know that those higher fees mean that there is a clear financial incentive to sell schools, municipalities, and pension funds on these risky deals. And we know that it works in Wall Street's favor that someone like me can spend days digging into this stuff and still not be totally sure what the exact costs of these deals are.  
What we don't know is how all these things were allowed to happen at this particular school in this particular timeframe.  
Sweet Briar appears slated to close because it is a small organization without the resources to counter the huge information imbalance that has helped precipitate the financialization crisis. It is closing because it signed some terrible deals to get what must have felt like "needed" money at the time. You can see the reasons: a $14 million bond (with swaps) in 2001 for campus improvements. A $10 million bond in 2006 to pay off other bonds that had revealed their ugly side and were costing the school too much to be allowed to fully mature. But, as has so often been the case in everything from municipal finance to personal home loans, there was a problem in the small print. Like many other colleges, what appeared to be vital and even beneficial deals turned out to be nothing of the sort. Unlike many others, Sweet Briar was already close enough to the financial brink that these ongoing debts made the difference between staying open and closing its doors.  
There are, of course, other very real pressures on Sweet Briar. Lower enrollment numbers do really hurt a school, and there are real questions about how to keep small, rural liberal arts institutions competitive in a higher education economy. None of these issues, however, compare to the fees, fines, penalties, and other losses that are all over Sweet Briar’s books.
Is Sweet Briar the canary in the coalmine? Banks are certainly making obscene profits on the backs of the swap deals in the UC system, at the University of Michigan, and at American University — and those are the places that we’ve found in our first month of looking. While those schools are solvent enough that these swaps are not pushing them to the brink of closing, they are exacerbating budget shortfalls and passing debt on to students through increased costs. These deals are also clearly making money for many school trustees whose day jobs happen to be with the giant banks. Here I find myself agreeing with Mark Cuban, at least in part: these trends are a part of a vicious cycle of borrowing that is wholly unsustainable, and will eventually lead to a crisis.  
This is why the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network is working to track the ways in which financial institutions are extracting wealth from our colleges and universities, and make a clear case for demanding our money back. I hope that the storied institution of Sweet Briar can find a way to keep it's doors open in 2016, but even if it fails, that failure should wake us up to predatory practices at colleges and universities around the country.   
Questions? Concerns? Interested in my math? Drop me a line.
Alan Smith is the Roosevelt Institute | Campus Network's Associate Director of Networked Initiatives.
Once you read above, please share your thoughts. Sweet Briar and Woodberry Forest School have at least two things in common: each is located on a huge parcel of land in rural Virginia, and each operated dairy farms that sold products on the open market and were successful for many years. 

August 23, 2014

 Edit post: Faulkner at UVA - by Gerry Cooper
Even peripheral undergraduate students such as I were aware that factions within the English department – and perhaps among the entire University administration – were in disagreement over the value of Mr. Faulkner’s presence and usefulness on the Grounds. Former professor of English Joseph Blotner has captured much of the color, along with some of the political issues, of that era at the University in his autobiographical work, An Unexpected Life, published in 2005. The chapter titled “The University and Mr. Faulkner” might more accurately be titled “The Faulkner Era at the University of Virginia.”
Despite the politics and controversy, William Faulkner had a remarkable impact in the brief period of his presence in Charlottesville. His time on the Grounds is comparable to the presence of Edgar Allan Poe, who was enrolled for one academic year, beginning February 1, 1826, in just the University’s second session.
The University of Virginia’s first president, Edwin A. Alderman, wrote in 1925 a convincing essay on Edgar Allan Poe’s tenure as a student. He describes how Poe, despite a short stay and a less than exemplary lifestyle, had symbolized the presence of a “world poet” at the University. Alderman concludes that Poe “has contributed an irreducible total of good to the spirit which men breathe [at the University] as well as a wide fame to his alma mater that will outlive all disaster, or change, or ill-fortune.” Alderman defines the effect that a true artistic talent may have upon a community of scholars – even when that presence is brief and controversial.
Blotner and others have reported that President Colgate Darden was lukewarm to Faulkner’s writer-in-residence status because he questioned that the University needed the national attention that Faulkner’s visit would bring. But from my point of view, William Faulkner’s presence on the grounds had the effect of opening a window onto a larger world for UVA students in the late 1950s. It is difficult for students in the 21st century to imagine what a great gulf existed between the Grounds and the larger worlds of government, commerce and especially the arts, before the advent of mass communications. No national media coverage originated in Charlottesville, and even Washington, D.C. offered little or no live theatre, at least until the Kennedy Center opened in 1971. Thus to have a person of international stature in the world of letters – a Nobel laureate – walking the Grounds daily over a period of months and years demonstrated that the University of Virginia had not lost sight of the world-class ambitions of its founder.
I’ve had an enduring interest in the University of Virginia ever since I arrived on the Grounds some fifty-three years ago as a “transfer” from another college. Perhaps that’s why I view the University from a different perspective than does the typical alumnus of any era before the 1970s. I have devoted a chapter in my ebook to the University of today, titled “Leading to Diversity,” highlighting the changes that I see as having occurred under the leadership of President John T. Casteen III.
I am happy to observe that gone are the days of a stereotyped faculty and student body, and of a laissez faire attitude toward diverse students that I experienced when I attended in the 1950s. As Mr. Jefferson the Francophile might have said, Vive la difference!

Gerald L. Cooper divided his 43-year career as an administrator, counselor and teacher among four preparatory schools, two colleges, and finally as executive director of a college access program [501 (c) (3)] that served ten public high schools in Norfolk, Portsmouth, and Virginia Beach. This essay derives from his bookOn Scholarship – From An Empty Room at Princeton, now in a limited print edition at Amazon.com; also available in PDF format online at: http://www.rosegill.com/OnScholarship/index.html (home website of Alfred Scott, who published On Scholarship).

In it Cooper describes his personal experiences with financial aid: receiving it, granting it, fundraising for it, and finding it for needy students.

President Alderman’s remarks about Poe (cited above) can be found in “Edgar Allan Poe and the University of Virginia” (The Virginia Quarterly Review, spring 1925), reprinted in We Write for Our Own Time: Selected Essays from the Virginia Quarterly Review (Charlottesville, 2000).

©2010 Gerald L. Cooper