Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Academic Life: Not much of a Community

I've been part of the same academic department for more than 40 years. For 12 of those years, I had management responsibility. All told, there have been 12 different heads of the Urban Studies and Planning Department since I arrived in 1969. I've seen six university presidents come and go.  I've also seen how six Deans of the School of Architecture have approached the increasingly difficult task of trying to make sense of our school with its Department of Architecture, Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP), The Media Lab, and Center for Real Estate that offer 20 different degrees.  Because I am on sabbatical, I have had a chance to reflect on the most significant changes in the way my Department was run in the past and the way it currently operates.  Don't get me wrong.  I'm quite happy where I am, or I would have left. And, the MIT administration (at a very centralized institution) has been quite generous with the Department.  But, the differences in what academic life used to be and what it is like now -- in the same department in the same university -- are worth noting.

The size of the tenured faculty has remained relatively stable for more than a decade (although we probably have the largest tenured faculty of any of the 70+ planning schools in North America).  We haven't switched to part-time, adjunct faculty the way many schools have.  We do have several Professors of Practice and full-time non-tenured faculty because we need advanced practitioners to help teach practice-skills, but mostly we have full time tenured or tenure-track faculty. We just hired four new faculty members this past year.  Our two-year professional master's of city planning degree has about 120 students. That's been stable for a long time.  There are still three or four applicants for each slot ever year.  There may be a slight uptick in the number of international students in our MCP and PHD programs over the past 20 years, but not much. The PHD Program mostly takes students with a prior master's degree who stick around for four to five additional years. There are 50 - 55 full time enrollees and 12 - 15 applicants for each of the 10 - 12 slots we fill each year.  They are an extremely eclectic group  with impressive scholarly credentials and a lot of practical experience in the public sector or in civil society.  It's a big department with lots of resources.  It's not so large by MIT standards, at least insofar as the engineering and science departments are concerned, but 30 tenured or tenure-track faculty is large by comparison with all other department of the same kind.  So, we have a lot of graduate students and a large faculty. (N.B. In the 1970's, when "urban problems" in America were on the front page every day, we had to cap the number of undergraduate majors in the department at 50.  Now there are fewer than 20 undergraduate majors, and they are more environmentally focused.)

Students and faculty in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning continued to be divided into program areas -- city design and development, environmental policy and planning, international development, and housing and community economic development along with cross-cutting areas like transportation planning and urban information systems. These divisions, however,  are a lot less useful than they used to be because students and faculty are engaged in research on issues like renewable energy, climate adaptation, housing development in China, and the impact of social media on public participation that don't fit neatly into the four long-standing categories. The list of more than 100 classes offered every year by our faculty would startle you.  And, a great many DUSP faculty teach and do research with faculty in other MIT departments or other universities, extending the geographic and topical scope of the research in the Department even further. It's hard to know which research funds are unique to our department, but I would estimate that our faculty are part of more than $5 million in sponsored research every year.  We just received one of the largest gifts ever made to MIT -- $118 million -- to support a new Real Estate Laboratory with a sustainable development orientation and an emphasis on China.  The scope and content of what we teach and the research we do changes to reflect what is happening the world at large.  That's not surprising.

What is surprising, though, is that the way we used to make decisions -- as a faculty -- and the full partnership role that students had,  are both gone. The faculty has occasional meetings to hear what has already been decided (by a small sub-committee or the Department Head),  but rarely invests in anything like the extensive debates we used to have about what our objectives or policies ought to be.  Students are asked their opinions, but they no longer serve as voting members on committees and, because of federal laws (and fear of lawsuits), they can no longer read letters of recommendation for student applicants or potential faculty hires.  Indeed, the entire relationship between graduate students and faculty has changed. Students do not feel free to speak their minds with their faculty advisors. They are too worried about how they will be judged (or who they might offend). Junior faculty do everything they can to avoid making statements that might be divisive.  They can't afford to alienate senior faculty who hold their futures in their hands. Most of the faculty and most of the graduate students have very little curiosity about what their peers (in the Department!) are doing.  They are too busy doing their own work. I doubt that very many faculty would say that their colleagues are among their closest friends (although that definitely used to be the case). While I'm sure that graduate students have close friends among other students in the Department, my sense is that the scope of those connections in the Department are quite limited.  Everyone is very busy, very scheduled.

Maybe that's the way it needs to be. But, I miss the freewheeling debate among the factions in the Department that could always be counted on to have strong feelings about current public policy questions. I miss the student-faculty interaction in which the students were as passionate, outspoken and uninhibited about their views as the faculty Everything seems more businesslike now.  Each person sticks to their own knitting. Even though I send copies of my new books to almost all of my colleagues, I doubt any of them has read them. Not one person in five years (and I published a new book almost every year or two) has come back to me and asked to talk about what I've written. Almost no one sends copies of the articles they publish to anyone other than the one or two faculty in exactly the same area of specialization.  When I travel out of the country with some of my colleagues and listen to them present to foreign audiences, I'm more likely to learn about what they are doing.

I don't know if my academic department is typical of others. But the loss of comradeship, the absence of spirited debate, curiosity about what colleagues are thinking and doing, and the lack of interest in collective governance (indeed, many faculty want to be left off committees and actively find ways of avoiding "administrative assignments") make day-to-day life in the university a lot less interesting than it used to be. The sense that graduate students "need to know their place," represents a loss for both the students (who are likely to treat their own students the same way in the future) and for the faculty who would otherwise be pushed harder to think about what they believe and why.

All told, even though my department is much richer in many respects, and the individuals involved are as smart and well-educated as they ever were, it doesn't feel like much of an intellectual community.  We had a series of large departmental meetings last year at which faculty were given 5 minutes to present a "lightening round" talk about their work. There were one or two questions asked by people who, in fact, were not familiar with the years of research summarized in each five minute talk (with jazzy power point slides, of course). I found it profoundly disappointing, but so typical of what passes for our "intellectual community" these days.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Reaching Agreement on the Nile

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan recently signed a Declaration of Principles aimed at resolving an increasingly contentious dispute over Ethiopia’s ongoing effort to build the $4.6 billion-dollar hydroelectric power plant project called the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Africa’s largest. The Declaration does not seek to resolve the larger question of how the overall waters of the Nile will be shared.  The fact that the Declaration was signed is an important accomplishment. I want to look closely, though, at the ten principles spelled out in the Declaration because I’m worried that some may be difficult to implement. [For a full translation of the agreement see]  I am also concerned about how the Declaration relates to the ongoing effort to reach agreement on the more comprehensive Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) that six of the Nile Basin countries have signed, but that Egypt and Sudan still oppose.

The Principle of cooperation 

This principle speaks of “cooperation based on mutual understanding, common interest, good intentions, benefits for all, and the principles of international law.”  The reference to international law is important.  Subsequent interpretations of whether the signatories are indeed living up to their responsibilities can, at least, be interpreted in the context of the 1997 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. 

The Principle of development, regional integration and sustainability

The Declaration indicates that the “purpose of the Renaissance Dam is to generate power, contribute to economic development, promote cooperation beyond borders, and regional integration through generating clean sustainable energy that can be relied on.”  It does not acknowledge that the three signatory countries are likely to have different objectives, at different times, with regard to energy production, agricultural needs and the allocation of water to support urban development.  The idea of “regional integration” is hard to fathom.  Each country will undoubtedly prepare its own development plans and pursue its own idea of what sustainable development requires.  I’m afraid that the practical implications of this Principle are entirely unclear.

The Principle of not causing significant damage

The Declaration calls for “the three countries [to] take all the necessary procedures to avoid causing significant damage while using the Blue Nile.”  International law already makes clear that all riparian countries are obliged to avoid causing significant harm as they seek to use transboundary waters. The Declaration goes on to say, “In case significant damage is caused to one of these countries, the country causing the damage [...], in the absence of an agreement over that [damaging] action, [is to take] all the necessary procedures to alleviate this damage, and discuss compensation whenever convenient.”   Here, again, it is hard to know what this will require in practice.  Alleviation of damage could mean removing the dam.  Is that what Ethiopia is committing to?  Compensating the costs of damages is a complicated proposition, not just determining the amount of compensation this is appropriate, but deciding to whom and how it should be paid.  No new instrumentality for determining whether significant damage has been caused or alleviating damage (or requiring compensation) is described in the Declaration.

The Principle of fair and appropriate use 

The Declaration says that the countries involved “will use their common water sources in their provinces in a fair and appropriate manner,” taking account of
“natural” and “climatic” elements, “social and economic needs,” “the needs of residents who depend on the water sources,” and “current and possible uses of the water sources.”  What does this mean?  Fair and appropriate use is very much in the eye of the beholder, although I am presuming they meant to reference the language of the UN Watercourse Convention that talks about “equitable and reasonable utilization.”  The Declaration goes on to speak about proportionality (again, presumably with reference to the UN Convention): with regard to “the extent of the contribution of each of the Nile Basin countries in the Nile River system” and the “extent of the percentage of the Nile Basin’s space within the territories of each Nile Basin Country.”  This is confusing.  The reference to the Nile Basin (the full Basin presumably) goes well beyond the sub-basin. Yet, only three of the 12 countries in the full Basin are involved as signatories to the Declaration.  And, even if the Declaration is referring only to the sub-basin, the percentages implied are likely to be contested.  Under similar circumstances, in other parts of the world, disputes have arisen because transboundary water users tend to calculate their proportionate shares differently.  The Declaration says that “Elements of preserving, protecting, [and] developing [water sources] and the economics of water sources” should be taken into account in determining fair and appropriate use.  Again, determining what these costs are, is likely to be contentious.

The principle of how the dam's storage reservoir will be filled initially (and dam operation policies)

The three nations intend to create a Technical Committee with four experts from each country. This Tripartite Technical Committee will need to undertake a number of additional studies to determine the possible impacts of the dam. The Tripartite Committee is expected to take account of the recommendations made by a previous international panel of experts.

Joint fact-finding is a very good idea. It is probably the most important feature of the agreement.  The Declaration calls on the Tripartite Committee to analyze “different scenarios of the first filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam reservoir in parallel with the construction of the dam.”  It also calls for the development of “guidelines and annual operation policies” for the Renaissance Dam.  It doesn’t say, though,  that these policies should be developed in cooperation with the managers of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt.  There is no parallel situation in the world in which two large dams in such close proximity  are not managed in concert.  The Declaration does call on Ethiopia “to inform downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, on any urgent circumstances that would call for a change in the operations of the dam, in order to ensure coordination with downstream countries' water reservoirs.”  That is a far cry from close cooperation in the management of the two dams.

The principle of trust building

The Declaration says that “downstream countries will be given priority to purchase energy generated by the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.”  Since Egypt is worried that the filling of the GERD will impair its ability to generate the electricity it needs, the idea that Ethiopia will sell Egypt electricity is very important.  In fact, the Declaration calls for a more concrete form of benefit-sharing than anything mentioned in the CFA. However, being “given priority” says nothing about price and availability.  It is highly unlikely that Egypt wants to become dependent on Ethiopia, at least at the present time, for the electricity it requires. So, it is not clear how the sale of electricity will build trust.  It could be, if Ethiopia promised to replace, free-of-charge, any electricity that the filling of the GERD causes Egypt to lose, this would constitute a “confidence building” or trust-building measure.

The principle of exchange of information and data

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have promised to “provide the information and data required to conduct the studies of the national experts committees from the three countries in the proper time.”  The Declaration does not say what information this covers.  Nor does it say what the penalties or remedies are if accurate and timely information are not forthcoming.

The principle of dam security

The three countries “appreciate all efforts made by Ethiopia up until now to implement the recommendations of the international experts committee regarding the safety of the dam.”  I won’t review the content of these recommendations in this blog entry, but the international experts involved questioned the adequacy of the design of the GERD as well as the accuracy of certain forecasts regarding the likely impact of filling the GERD on downstream countries (i.e. Sudan and Egypt).  The Declaration says that “Ethiopia will continue in good will to implement all recommendations related to the dam's security in the reports of the international technical experts.”  It is not clear whether this refers to the recommendation of the earlier international experts’ report (which called for a temporary halt in construction until certain safety issues could be reviewed and resolved), or whether it refers to subsequent safety recommendations of the new Tripartite Technical Committee.

The principle of sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity

The Declaration promises that the “three countries [will] cooperate on the basis of equal sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of the state, mutual benefit and good will, in order to reach the better use and protection of the River Nile.” This is somewhat confusing.  The emphasis on equal sovereignty and territorial integrity suggests that each of the three countries has a right to pursue its self-interest with regard to the waters of the Blue Nile.  Cooperation and unity, on the other hand, suggest a commitment to their shared interests. To some observers, these commitments might appear to pull in opposite direction. A different interpretation, though, is that the Declaration is intentionally acknowledging the 1959 Nile Basin Agreement that gave Egypt veto power over any development decisions regarding the Nile. The Declaration seems to embrace the new language of the CFA or, at least, the idea that there needs to be cooperation and shared decisions making about major development projects (and that Egypt will no longer have unilateral control). 

The principle of the peaceful settlement of disputes

Finally, the Declaration calls on the three countries to “commit to settle any dispute resulting from the interpretation or application of the declaration of principles through talks or negotiations based on the good will principle. If the parties involved do not succeed in solving the dispute through talks or negotiations, they can ask for mediation or refer the matter to their heads of states or prime ministers.”  I’m delighted to see an explicit reference to the need for dispute resolution.  Most dispute resolution clauses in other international agreements, though, are a lot more specific about the ways in which mediation is triggered (and supplied) and how a definitive resolution of differences will be achieved (i.e. through arbitration of some kind). 

The Declaration represents an important breakthrough.  From all reports, construction of the GERD is more than one-third complete and concerns raised by the International Panel of Experts have Egypt worried that the filling of the GERD could cause water shortages or adverse water quality effects in Egypt.  Sudan is finally a partner in these conversations. The GERD will make it easier for Sudan to store water and enhance its hydroelectricity production. All of these are positive features of the Declaration.  However, the other countries upstream are probably wondering what the Declaration means with regard to Egypt’s willingness to sign the CFA and allow a full basin partnership to come into effect.