Monday, December 31, 2018

2018 in Review

The best thing about establishing a tradition of blogging at the end of the year is that it compels me to write down some thoughts.  So, here they are, in no particular order:
  • My very talented student Ben Fish graduated this year and is now doing a postdoc at the newly established Microsoft Research MontrĂ©al.  In his dissertation, he developed interesting new algorithms for modern data analysis, and I eagerly await the impactful work he'll continue to produce.
  • I am on sabbatical at Northwestern until Fall of 2019.  I'll be teaching a graduate class this Winter quarter and probably another one in Spring.  I've realized I'm probably happiest while teaching one course, so that's the situation I've arranged for myself.  I'm also of course excited to be in a new environment and to interact with Northwestern's fantastic group of faculty and students.
Mudd library: home of Northwestern CS and where I'll be most of next year. (Photo by me.)
  • There has been recent activity connecting logic to machine learning.  A nice paper by my colleagues at UIC relates concepts in model theory and concepts in computational learning theory.  Another interesting paper gives a machine learning problem that's independent of ZFC; I've written a Nature News and Views piece about it, which should appear sometime soon (update on 1/18/19: my paper is here).  In general, I am excited to see where these directions lead.
  • I really enjoy attending the ALT conference because unlike some of the huge machine learning conferences, it is a relatively small and intimate gathering, where it's possible to get to know fellow attendees and actually have time to discuss ideas.  In addition to chairing the local planning as ALT arrives in Chicago for 2019, I've also been leading an effort to build a legal structure around the organization of ALT.  And this November, AALT, the Association for Algorithmic Learning Theory, became incorporated as a nonprofit.  It's been a lot of work, and I'm not yet done, but it's also been very rewarding to help ensure the future of a conference I've become very fond of.  I'm also excited to see ALT improve year after year, while it continues cover a broad array of topics within learning theory.
ALT 2019 will be in Chicago.  (Photo by Allen McGregor.)
  • I continue to worry about illiberal values gaining ground in higher education, where more and more dogmas cannot even be questioned. This trend is increasingly affecting the sciences and even applied mathematics.  The best defense that I see is for what I really hope is the majority of us who do value a diversity of ideas to speak out, and the more who do, the less risky it will be.  Outside higher education, there are also many reasons to worry, but one bright spot is the fairly new Quillette magazine, which has been fearlessly publishing thoughtful articles on controversial topics, including ones concerning academia.
  • In my last year's post, I advocated for conferences to make changes to address problems around the harassment of attendees, and I'm glad to see instances of sexual harassment being taken seriously.  But, I was skeptical of the proposal to rename NIPS.  Nonetheless, after what most everyone would agree was a flawed process, NIPS ended up changing its name branding to what seems to many to be something remarkably awkward.  Time may tell whether this decision was wise.
  • My department is hiring for its MCS group, and theoretical computer science, which has grown substantially at UIC in the last few years, is a priority area.  If you're interested in joining us, consider applying (preferably by 1/14)!
    UIC's math department in winter. (Photo by me.)
To a happy and productive 2019!

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Janus and Higher Education

In its recent Janus v. AFSCME decision, the Supreme Court struck down public sector union security agreements.  This relates to my professional life because UIC is a public university, and our faculty are unionized.  I also have an interest in constitutional law, and I finally have a "jurisdictional hook" to blog about it.  Moreover, I recently realized that while I often hear from pro-union faculty and various union representatives, I rarely see other perspectives, at least at work.  So, as a union non-member, I thought it might be useful to give some brief thoughts about the issues involved.

a photo I took of the Supreme Court building during a recent visit to D.C.

In Janus v. AFSCME, Janus challenged the constitutionality of charging public sector employees "fair share" agency fees.  In about half of the states (those without "right-to-work" laws), when a workforce became unionized, unions were allowed to negotiate security agreements, which gave them the power to collect agency fees from non-members.  The Supreme Court held that these agreements violate non-members' first amendment rights by forcing them to subsidize political speech they disagree with.  Unions were already not permitted to compel non-members to pay for the portion of their activities that are overtly political, but the Supreme Court ruled that in the public sector, union bargaining is inherently political because the unions negotiate with the government, which impacts public policy. Especially illuminating was one particular exchange from the oral argument, between Mr. Franklin, the Solicitor General of Illinois, and Justice Kennedy:
Mr. Franklin: ... Independent of that, we have an interest at the end of the day in being able to work with a stable, responsible, independent counterparty that's well-resourced enough that it can be a partner with us in the process of not only contract negotiation -­ 
Justice Kennedy: It can be a partner with you in advocating for a greater size workforce, against privatization, against merit promotion, against -- for teacher tenure, for higher wages, for massive government, for increasing bonded indebtedness, for increasing taxes? That's -- that's the interest the state has? 
Whether you buy this argument or not, you only have to look at the budget crisis in Illinois to understand the concern.

Turning to my own experience, when I first arrived at UIC, the faculty had just unionized.  And while UIC is not the only public research university with a unionized faculty, I viewed unionization as a worrisome development.  It especially seemed to me that tenure-track faculty at an R1 university should be able to negotiate on their own behalf when the need arises.  My concerns were further reinforced when two years later, a faculty strike almost coincided with our interviewing faculty candidates.  Imagine trying to convince someone to join your department with your colleagues holding "unhappy faculty on strike" signs.  Moreover, I thought it would be detrimental for faculty to have to worry about possible repercussions of teaching during strikes or to face potential political pressure from colleagues to join the union.

a union strike at UIC

As I already mentioned, I never joined the union; but on occasion, various union representatives have tried to get me to join and invariably made the following pitch: "You're going to have to pay the union anyway, so why not sign the membership card and have a say?"  The union wants to keep the majority of the bargaining unit as members in order to avoid facing a credible decertification effort, and thereby wants everyone to join.  And non-members were incentivized to join even if they didn't support the union, so that they could have some say in their contract.  To me, this argument for non-members to join the union seems as objectionable as the impetus will be for members to become "free riders" in the post-Janus world.

So what will happen now that security agreements are struck down? It's hard to predict.  I don't know if it's possible, but I'd like to see a workable middle ground emerge. A compromise, for example, that allows workers to unionize and allows unions to charge, represent, and negotiate on behalf of their members only, while leaving the non-members alone, might be one answer.  I hope there are also other interesting possibilities to consider.  Whatever happens, the status quo is about to change, and I envisage for the better.