We’re back from the holiday with another daily dose of news, notes and links from around Kansas University.
• I spent some time recently reading a speech Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little delivered to the Reinvention Center National Conference in Washington, D.C., back in November. (Hey, you spend your holidays your way, I’ll spend them in mine).
The speech touches on a wide variety of issues facing major research institutions today, including technology, competition with the for-profit sector and declining humanities majors.
She seemed to anticipate Governor-Elect Sam Brownback’s recent comments about small-degree programs, when he suggested that perhaps Kansas colleges should review programs with low numbers of graduates.
Fewer humanities majors, Gray-Little says, poses a wide variety of issues for a school, including how to best preserve the strength of the humanities “voice,” which Gray-Little is “so key to a liberal arts education.”
“Policymakers often weigh student demand and enrollment in making decisions about resource allocation,” Gray-Little said in the speech, and perhaps gazing into her crystal ball. “It is reasonable to assume that just as humanities enrollments and department size decline, there are increasing numbers of faculty members in areas such as business and economics, and an increase in their influence on the university policies and decision.”
The chancellor goes on to ask: How does this shift change the nature of what KU does at a university?
“We have set ourselves apart from other institutions of higher learning by offering a more comprehensive education,” she said. “If we lose that, we lose one of the differentiators that supposedly make a university education more valuable.”
• Judge Mary Murguia, a member of KU’s Women’s Hall of Fame, has been confirmed for a spot on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The U.S. Senate approved President Obama’s nomination last week on an 89-0 vote.
Though her nomination was announced in March, it took this long to wrangle the nomination through the Senate, where federal judgeships often get delayed because of partisan bickering.
Murguia’s twin sister, Janet Murguia, is a former KU administrator and now serves as the president and chief executive officer of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy organization.
Both Murguias were on campus earlier this year when they gave the Emily Taylor and Marilyn Stokstad Women's Leadership Lecture in February.
• Though it’s a little unsettling to think about, apparently, the earth is getting whacked with a bunch of cosmic rays all the time.
And that could have an impact on extinction events. So says KU professor Adrian Melott, anyway.
Most cosmic rays that hit the earth are of low density. But, if, say a star blows up nearby and goes supernova, that could be a problem. “Nearby” here is quite relative — Melott is talking about 30 light-years away or so.
But cosmic rays could cause ozone depletion, he said, referring to the layer of the stratosphere that acts as a shield against ultraviolet light.
"A strong event like a gamma ray burst from a nearby supernova causes even more depletion, resulting in a doubling of the global average (ultraviolet B light)," says Melott, "which all the people who experiment on plants and animals with UVB tell us would be a disaster."
No need to run around in the streets panicking, though. Melott assured that those kinds of supernovas only happen once every few hundred million years or so. On average.
That could help explain how one of the earth’s mass extinctions 440 million years ago, which Melott and his team think could be explained by radiation.
The research is funded by the National Science Foundation.
• I’ll be hiding under my desk to ensure no cosmic rays can reach me. I’ll have my laptop, though, so keep e-mailing tips for Heard on the Hill to firstname.lastname@example.org.