Stories I’d like to see

The cushy world of academia, surveillance 2.0 and $200 million to tear down a building

In his “Stories I’d like to see” column, journalist and entrepreneur Steven Brill spotlights topics that, in his opinion, have received insufficient media attention. This article was originally published on

1. Is higher ed the capital of featherbedding?

This sentence in an LA Times editorial two weeks ago about Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano becoming the president of the University of California caught my eye: “Half of the regents haven’t even had a chance to talk to her about how she would approach the job — a job that involves 10 campuses, 170,000 faculty and staff members, and more than 220,000 students.”

Does it really take 170,000 faculty and staff to serve 220,000 students? Actually, not quite. According to the university’s website, there are 121,000 faculty and staff, not 170,000. But that still means 1.8 faculty and staff members for every student — which doesn’t seem like much of a workload.

So I checked three other universities at random. New York University’s website says it has about 51,000 students and 16,000 employees, or about one employee for every three students. Harvard lists 16,500 faculty and staff for about 21,000 students, or 1.27 students for every employee. Florida State University says it has a faculty and staff of about 8,200 serving 41,000 students, or five students for every staff member.

Leaving out the staff and just counting faculty, California has 3.7 students for every faculty member; NYU has 6.3 per student; FSU has 17.8; and Harvard has 8.75.

All these staffing ratios suggest pretty light workloads and low productivity, especially given the size of so many of the classes faculty members typically teach. And, at least in terms of reputation, the ratios don’t seem to correlate to quality, given the Harvard comparison to California or NYU.

So, with President Obama and other political leaders lately making the escalating cost of higher education a big issue, there’s got to be a great story, locally and nationally, in examining what’s behind those numbers. Have university campuses become our cushiest workplaces?

2. Surveillance 2.0?

Thanks to this report in the trade publication Government Security News, I noticed this procurement announcement last week from the Secret Service:

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) intends to negotiate on a sole source basis with Canon USA, Inc., One Canon Park, Melville, NY, 11747, for color video camera systems that are solely available to the Government. The cameras being procured are not commercially available and are strictly limited for the Government’s official use.

With high-resolution surveillance cameras, including those operated by private venue-owners, on so many street corners and deployed inside and outside millions of homes, buildings and stores around the world, what could be so special about these surveillance cameras that only the government can have them?

For a long time I’ve thought that surveillance cameras that could both see and hear — in other words catch and record what people were saying privately in public or semi-public places — would be the ultimate, and ultimately scary, Big Brother tool. Is that what this camera does?

3. $200 million to tear it down?

We all know how expensive building an office tower in a city like New York can be. But $200 million to tear one down? An article (now behind a pay wall) from Thomson Reuters News and Insight about litigation surrounding the takedown of the Deutsche Bank Building — a 41-story office tower near the World Trade Center that was damaged beyond repair in the September 11 attacks — puts the cost of demolishing the building at $200 million.

It took nearly 10 years for the building to vanish because of delays caused by multiple lawsuits over who should pay, how the demolition should be carried out, and whether there was corruption in the award of the contracts. There was also a fire in 2007 that killed two demolition workers, which resulted in manslaughter indictments and acquittals of three construction supervisors. And the litigation — involving issues from criminal liability, to environmental impact, to zoning that could almost complete a law school curriculum — is still not completely over.

All in all, great material for a mini-e-book narrating the twists and turns — financial, legal, political and personal — in a fiasco that added insult to injury.

4. Can’t anybody get the A-Rod story?

Can so many sports reporters really be so lame? I’ve suggested this before, but the absence of a definitive story on Alex Rodriguez’s contract with the Yankees and the insurance policy the Yankees bought to cover it has become ridiculous.

It’s now comically obvious that the Yankees are trying to do whatever they can — even telling A-Rod that his leg hurts when he says it doesn’t — to keep him off the field before what looks like his inevitable suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. I almost expect to read tomorrow that someone from front office was caught leaving banana peels on the floor in the corridor of his hotel room.

Maybe we should organize a Kickstarter campaign to fund a reward for the reporter who can get the details of A-Rod’s contract and the insurance policy tied to it. How much money is at stake here? What are the trigger clauses behind the front office’s apparent effort to do everything short of hiring a hit man to keep him from returning to Yankee Stadium? If he has one at-bat or one inning on a major league field does the Yankee’s insurance coverage lapse? Would that mean they have to pay him even if he is suspended?

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Steven Brill , the author of Class Warfare: Inside the Fight To Fix America’s Schools, has written for magazines including New York, The New Yorker, Time, Harper's, and The New York Times Magazine. He founded and ran Court TV, The American Lawyer magazine, ten regional legal newspapers, and Brill's Content magazine. He also teaches journalism at Yale, where he founded the Yale Journalism Initiative.