Fisher v. UT and the Insider Baseball of College Admissions

Guest post by Michael A. Olivas, discussing the case of Fisher v. University of Texas.

In several important respects, Fisher v. University of Texas breaks no conceptual ground or doctrinal ground since the 1978 Bakke case or the 2003 Grutter case, both of which upheld the modest use of race in college admissions. These cases remain the law of the land in admissions, subject to state actions taken by voters to limit the use of race in admissions, a practice ratified in the recent Schuette case. In that case, the US Supreme Court held that voters could determine such admissions policies and practices by ballot measure—a regrettable turn of events that politicizes college practices all the more.

But Fisher, the case of a disgruntled white applicant who was not admissible or admitted to the Austin campus of the University of Texas, either by the automatic Percentage Plan or by the comprehensive and holistic review, is an unnecessary case that never should have been brought or allowed. Abigail Fisher did not directly challenge the Percentage Plan—rather, she challenged the use of race in the holistic review process when the Plan was already in use. In other words, she did not object to the race-neutral admissions pathway, but to the comprehensive review that is constitutional under Bakke and Grutter.

SCOTUS determined that the trial court and the Fifth Circuit had not examined the extent to which the UT holistic process was “narrowly-tailored,” the Constitutional requirement that affirmative action be used only in a focused way, when other alternatives did not provide the diversity that is sought—and sent it back for such a review. That remand led to the trial court and the Circuit panel re-affirming the UT process.

While we do not know if the entire Circuit will accept the new analysis, or if SCOTUS will accept the more careful language of the remand, there has been considerable confusion about the Percentage Plan and its effect upon UT and the holistic review. Here, JHU Press readers will have access to some admissions insider baseball, as I examine and tell the back story of how the Percentage Plan came to be, how it has been misrepresented by opponents of affirmative action, and how it was even misunderstood by Justice Ruth Ginsberg. Justice Ginsburg’s dissent spares no snark in describing the Plan:

Petitioner urges that Texas’ Top Ten Percent Law and race-blind holistic review of each application achieve significant diversity, so the University must be content with those alternatives. I have said before and reiterate here that only an ostrich could regard the supposedly neutral alternatives as race unconscious. As Justice Souter observed, the vaunted alternatives suffer from “the disadvantage of deliberate obfuscation.” Texas’ percentage plan was adopted with racially segregated neighborhoods and schools front and center stage.

Given the mistaken racial-paternity assumed even by Justice Ginsburg in her dissent in the Fisher remand, I take this opportunity to elaborate on and correct the Percentage Plan record.

After Hopwood began to frag its way through Texas, State Representative Irma Rangel (D-Kingsville), the chair of the Texas House Committee on Higher Education, convened a small working group composed of Latino professors and attorneys from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) to advise her on a legislative response. Inasmuch as the decision had the effect of banning the use of race in admissions to the state’s public colleges, the group—which varied between six and ten members, and to which I belonged—met monthly in Austin to plot a completely race-neutral response. We began an intensive scholarly reading program, took note of legal and legislative developments in other states, particularly California, and undertook computer simulations to counter the immediate and detrimental effects of Hopwood.

After more than nine months of meetings, we settled on a refined version of the California Master Plan (“Master Plan”), a longstanding tiered model with open admission community colleges for freshman and sophomore classes, moderately selective junior-senior upper division institutions in the California State University System, and the more elite and selective University of California (“UC”) System, which drew from the top 12.5 percent of the state’s high schools under a complex UC-eligible formula that weighted grades and mandatory test scores. While the Master Plan was decades old and had been revised to accommodate the state’s growth and resources, UC campuses were still extremely competitive and bursting at the seams.

In contrast, Texas had a more decentralized plan, with over a dozen individual college systems, most with multiple campuses and no centralized admissions model. The University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin), as the most selective and popular campus in that multiple-institution statewide system, faced a number of constraints; on the other hand, there were other campuses and systems that were under-capacity or could grow (unlike the more space-limited UC campuses, such as those in Berkeley and Los Angeles). There were symmetries, such as the very competitive nature of the flagship programs (particularly at the UT-Austin campus, which boasted one of the nation’s largest enrollments); limits on the number of full-time, first-time freshmen they could plausibly accept; competitive undergraduate majors such as Business and Engineering; and selective graduate and professional schools.

In our search to find a race-neutral alternative to Hopwood’s restrictions, we took note that the UT-Austin campus relied on a very small range of high schools that served as “feeder schools” to the campus. Some of these selected high schools sent almost twenty percent of their graduating class to the campus. We also found that a number of counties and high schools in the sprawling state were less-inclined to send their students to UT-Austin. We discovered more than two dozen counties that had not sent a successful applicant to UT-Austin in over a decade, particularly from the more remote eastern and western rural counties and schools. We did not take into account the racial character of those schools, although we certainly realized that a growing percentage of African American and Mexican American students were concentrated in the larger cities and, in the case of the Latino students, in the Rio Grande Valley, roughly along the state’s border with Mexico, in a swath from Laredo/Nuevo Leon East to Brownsville/Matamoros.

As a result of a MALDEF case, Texas had recently upgraded the border colleges and realigned them with either the UT or TAMU systems. However, the Texas Supreme Court subsequently overturned a lower court decision that had held that the State intentionally favored the more northern areas, harming Mexican-Americans who were concentrated along the border and in San Antonio. One authoritative case study of the LULAC v. Richards litigation characterized the unanimous Texas Supreme Court decision as “unsound” inasmuch as it ignored the “centrality of race and racism and the intersectionality of racism with other forms of oppression.” In a recent book chapter,  I found the combination of the successful upgrading of border colleges and the Richards defeat to be “the antonym of a pyrrhic victory—perhaps a victory notwithstanding the verdict.”

The computer runs were most promising for adding Mexican-Americans and, to a lesser extent, African-Americans (who had access to several private historically black institutions and two public ones) under one scenario: an automatic admissions policy that replaced the SAT or ACT requirement with the condition of graduating from a state high school in the top twenty percent. We feared that such a program, even if only a small number of the eligible students enrolled, would swamp three or four of the flagship schools—perhaps UT-Austin, TAMU-College Station, the University of Houston, and UT-Dallas—and that a larger percentage of graduates attending a given campus would prove problematic in its own way.

Ultimately, we settled on the Top Ten Percent Plan (“Plan”), which guaranteed admission to high school graduates who were in the highest decile of their graduating classes. We sold the plan on broad participatory grounds and stressed the widespread notion that doing well in school was a good indicator of quality, one often incorporated into choices of valedictorian, and that high rank-in-class was often used as a proxy for college readiness. We successfully sold it to legislators by stressing the simplified process, one to be fairly applied across all schools, and one likely to result in a signal to high school students, school counselors and advisors, and parents. I recall one white rural legislator’s surprise when he was informed that no one from his district’s largest high school had been admitted into UT-Austin for over a quarter century, and I recall a pleasant discussion with a lawyer, who had litigated Hopwood and gone on to become an education attorney-advisor to then-Governor George W. Bush. As it turned out, he was from a small rural district, and he immediately offered to pitch the plan to the governor. Given his politics and litigation experience, I am confident he would never have supported a racial plan, nor would Governor Bush, who signed the Plan into law.

In a state where whites are a declining proportion and total number of the public school population, the Plan was sure to spread out the applicants and enrollees. But it was not at all clear it would do so disproportionately for students of color, and it did not ultimately do so. The after-the-fact quarterbacking that now seems afoot is simply wrong. This plan was not race-specific; rather, it was crafted to survive the hostile post-Hopwood politics and potential legal challenges, and it was intended to reduce the effect of the standardized tests on the system. To describe it as race-neutral is particularly appropriate in its as-applied optics, as over half of all students admitted under the Plan (now reduced to less than ten percent for UT-Austin, after the campus received an exemption on the grounds that the enrollment under the original Plan had swamped them and left them with no room for discretionary admits) have been white. In Texas, whites constitute only slightly more than thirty percent of the total public school enrollment. If Latinos did not drop out of school at such an alarming rate, the percentage of white students would be even lower.

Residential segregation in Texas is so pervasive that there are single-race high schools, but that is no counter to the race-neutrality of the Top Ten Percent Plan. To assert otherwise requires a hermetically-sealed perfect world where every school would be composed of the ideal percentage of students by group in the state. In my most nationalistic or nihilist moment, I would never claim that every unfair result is traceable to nativism or racial discrimination, but to the Abigail Fishers of the world, every minority student—a term to be used advisedly in Texas—is sitting in their seat or keeping them out. Indeed, Fisher is a special racial pleading, even as Abigail Fisher did not directly challenge the Plan. The mere existence of the Plan, which did not admit her, is evidence that the University of Texas must be using racial means to keep her out, even as Grutter allows the institution to employ racial admissions considerations in a modest way.

I end on this note. No matter the ultimate result of Fisher itself, I am confident that minority-related cases will be brought with regularity when whites are more readily recognized as not constituting the majority.


olivasMichael A. Olivas is the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of Houston Law Center and the author of  15 books, including Suing Alma Mater: Higher Education and the Courtspublished by Johns Hopkins. He hosts a weekly NPR radio show,  The Law of Rock and Roll.”



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Metro Reaches Tysons Corner . . . Finally

Guest post by Zachary M. Schrag

Measure twice, cut once, is good advice for carpenters and tailors. It’s even better advice for transportation planners, whose decisions can shape metropolitan regions for generations. This Saturday, July 26, officials will inaugurate the first stations on the Silver Line, an addition to the Washington Metro rapid transit system. In doing so, they will help rectify the biggest mistake made by the system’s planners nearly half a century ago.

For the most part, Metro’s planners did a remarkably good job of measuring and cutting. The five lines they created collect commuters from parking lots, bus routes, and neighborhoods throughout Washington and suburban Maryland and Virginia and deliver them to such major employment centers as the Pentagon, Southwest D.C., and Farragut Square.

Metro has attracted investment to previously declining parts of the region, most notably Washington’s downtown east of 15th Street. Once home to vacant buildings and porn shops, the area is now the location of a new convention center and sports arena as well as thriving office buildings, shops, restaurants, and condominiums. Montgomery County, Maryland, and Arlington County, Virginia, also designed their zoning to encourage dense growth near Metro stations, so that parts of those counties have become models of transit-oriented development. In Arlington, automobile traffic on key roads has actually declined even as population and employment have soared.

Moreover, some of the most frustrating gaps in Metro coverage were beyond the power of transportation planners to address. In particular, National Park Service intransigence about Rock Creek Park helped doom plans to serve Adams-Morgan, now a lively district of restaurants and bars that could use better transit service.

But planners did make one great mistake in failing to route Metro to Tysons Corner, a district defined by the intersection of three major highways in Fairfax County, Virginia. To be sure, Tysons wasn’t much to look at in the mid-1960s, when planners pulled out their colored pencils. But by 1965, the county had rezoned the area to allow for a regional mall, while planning staff called Tysons the “gateway to Washington for the jet-age” and the “crossroads of the county,” with the potential for up to 85,000 jobs. It could have been an ideal place to build rapid transit, letting the boom town grow up around Metro.

Instead, county supervisors routed Metro’s Orange Line to serve the small but existing, communities of Vienna and Fairfax City, to the south of Tysons Corner. These mostly residential communities rejected plans for dense development, which went to Tysons instead. So rather than combining those complementary machines—the subway and the skyscraper—Fairfax essentially gave its residents a choice between driving to the Metro station near Vienna or driving to work or shop at Tysons.

That will change at noon on July 26, when the first Silver Line train rolls east from the Reston-Wiehle Station, making four stops in Tysons before joining the existing Metro system in Arlington. Now, developers will have incentives to build their office towers and apartment buildings within an easy walk of stations, and commuters to some of the 100,000 jobs in Tysons will have an alternative to the clogged roads of the district. Fairfax County is encouraging more people to live in Tysons, with Metro as part of the lure. One may even start to see people walking to work as both apartments and offices cluster near the new stations.

All of this will take time. Arlington’s Orange Line stations opened in 1979, yet some lots within walking distance of the line are only now being developed. If you really want to understand the significance of Saturday’s ribbon-cutting for Tysons Corner, check back in the year 2050.


Schrag_The Great Society SubwayZachary M. Schrag is a professor of history at George Mason University, and author of the book, The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro.

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The problem of undocumented immigrants is not new

Guest Post by Ronald H. Bayor

The nation is presently watching the Mexico–U.S. border and obsessing over the issue of illegal immigration. The topic of undocumented immigrants, however, is not a new one. With the passage of largely ineffective state laws in the nineteenth century excluding certain immigrants because of disease, criminal background, or other problems, America began to witness the appearance of those entering the country regardless of restrictions.

Official federal control of immigration began in 1875 with a Supreme Court ruling and then with the systematization of the process by the opening of Ellis Island in 1892. Neither stopped the many immigrants who entered unlawfully. Immigrants barred from entry managed to evade exclusion by bribing immigration officials or ship captains, arriving as ship stowaways, using false papers such as citizenship documents, hiding previous criminal behavior, forging medical records, or traveling as first-class passengers who were given only cursory examinations. The U.S. never had a foolproof system for capping entry.

Rather than Hispanics from Latin America, those illegally entering the U.S. were comprised of various European nationalities. Western hemisphere immigrants were exempt from any restrictions and entered as non-quota immigrants until the 1965 immigration act. Their labor was essential to American agriculture. Asians, however, faced early and severe restriction starting with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. But that law and its successors failed to provide a barrier, as the Chinese used various techniques, including purchased citizenships (known as “Paper Sons”), to secure entry.

In the 1920s, when immigration legislation establishing quotas was introduced, the key issues concerned nationality and race. According to the pseudoscience of eugenics, some immigrants were of “better stock” than others and would add, not detract, from the nation’s biological health. Southern and Eastern Europeans and Asians were considered to be detrimental to the country. Assumptions based on stereotypes held that these immigrants would become charity cases, were not as mentally or physically fit, were prone to crime and disease, and represented the dregs of the world, “the wretched refuse” of other shores. With quotas came more attempts to enter the U.S. illegally.

Immigrants in 1902 in a detention pen on the roof of the main building. Detention meant that something was wrong and could lead to days or months in unsanitary and crowded quarters, as well as deportation.  Courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-116223.

Immigrants in 1902 in a detention pen on the roof of the main building. Detention meant that something was wrong and could lead to days or months in unsanitary and crowded quarters, as well as deportation. Courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-116223.

The system changed over the years due to the need for workers at various times, and in the post-World War II era, foreign policy pressures forced the end of unequal nationality quotas. America usually needed the skills and workforce that immigrants provided, and the immigrants longed to start a new life in the U.S. Eugenics became discredited after the Nazis used these false theories to create the horrors of the Holocaust. But stereotypes about immigration prevailed. Undocumented or illegal immigration concerns in present times became sharply refocused on Hispanics coming from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador rather than on the previously despised European groups. While many object to the illegal status of these immigrants, suggest building a wall or fence along the U.S./Mexican border, and want to deport those already here, the illegal issue has historically been complex. People’s personal preferences and racial attitudes influence their reaction to immigration more than the letter of the law. During the 1980s, white immigrants from Cuba found more acceptance as new arrivals than black immigrants from Haiti. If German, British, or Norwegian immigrants sat on our border yearning to enter, the storm of protest against illegals of these nationalities would hardly exist, especially if children were involved. In the 1990s, for example, Congress passed temporary legislation allowing larger numbers of Irish to arrive.

The issue then is not just illegal entry but who enters. Although the U.S. has an immigration system based on attracting people with particular skills and enabling family reunification, exceptions have always existed, including classification as non-quota refugees. And those children on the border now could easily fit the legal definition of refugees and enter as humanitarian cases.

The reasons for entry, legal or illegal, over the years have remained the same: immigrants come to this country fleeing wars, crime, a poor economy, class restrictions, and lack of opportunity. As one Colombian immigrant, who arrived undocumented in 1980, said, “We were just immigrants looking for freedom.” He found opportunity and success. While nobody supports open borders without any regulation, immigrants, even those who came illegally, have provided the U.S. with a constant flow of the skills and the ambition needed to create future growth and prosperity.

bayorRonald H. Bayor is a professor emeritus of history at Georgia Institute of Technology. His most recent publication is Encountering Ellis Island: How European Immigrants Entered Americapublished by Johns Hopkins.


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Shall we take the ferry to Nantucket to visit the Folger Shakespeare Library?

Guest post by Stephen H. Grant 

North and west facades of the Folger Shakespeare Library the year before it opened (Folger Shakespeare Library).

North and west facades of the Folger Shakespeare Library the year before it opened (Folger Shakespeare Library).

It was not a foregone conclusion that the Folger Shakespeare Library be built two blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Hidden away among Folger papers as I scoured in the library’s underground vault during the research phase of Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folger, I found a small undated note with ten possible sites for the Folger in alphabetical order written in co-founder Henry Folger’s meticulous clerk’s hand.

Nantucket was included because the Massachusetts island off Cape Cod had been home to the Folger tribe since surveyor and court clerk Peter Foulger arrived from Norwich, England, in the 1660s. In Moby Dick, Herman Melville wrote of “Folgers and harpooners,” as Henry’s grandfather, master blacksmith Samuel, fashioned cutting-in spades for the whaling trade. Henry’s Uncle James, after leaving Nantucket to seek his fortune in California during the Gold Rush, founded Folgers Coffee. Ever the businessman, oilman Henry calculated that a plot of land on Nantucket would cost $25,000.

Brooklynite Henry Folger eyed the lavish home at 1015 Fifth Avenue, which was owned by Jay Gould’s granddaughter, as well as the one next door belonging to socialite Edith Clark. These Manhattan properties each required an outlay of $550,000, Folger figured. Exerting the most pressure was Stratford-upon-Avon; if successful, this faraway lobby would have meant repatriating to British soil the Shakespeare treasures acquired largely at auctions in England. Folger also declared, “I have been importuned by several Colleges and Universities to locate my library of Shakespeareana with them, but I have never felt disposed to consider the suggestions.”

Diagram in Henry Folger’s hand of four possible library sites on Capitol Hill (Folger Shakespeare Library).

Diagram in Henry Folger’s hand of four possible library sites on Capitol Hill (Folger Shakespeare Library).

“I finally concluded I would give it to Washington; for I am a patriot,” Folger affirmed. Before WWI, Washington was a sleepy southern town. Contributing to the literary and cultural enhancement of the political capital appealed to the Folgers. Perhaps without fully realizing the extent of their gift, the Folgers, in their quiet way, were responsible for an uptick in America’s reputation and prestige: the moment of arrival for the young country on the world scene as Europe’s equal, and, in some respects, superior.

Secrecy was a practice Folger applied to his real estate acquisitions as well as to his book buying. In 1918 he wrote to a land speculator known for his clandestine purchases asking him to “inquire very cautiously” about four locations on Capitol Hill. One, noted on city maps as “future gov’t building,” would become twenty years later the Supreme Court; that was a non-starter. A second became the Lutheran Church of the Reformation across 2nd Street NE from the Court on East Capitol Street. A third eventually became the Madison building of the Library of Congress. The Folgers decided on one of the most opulent blocks on the Hill: an assemblage of fourteen redbrick Italianate rowhouses known as Grant’s Row (no relation to the author). It cost Folger $317,000 and took him more than eight years to buy the properties on the 200 block of East Capitol Street SE. Henry Folger’s name appeared on no document related to the transaction: as a result, virtually no one knew he had become the owner.

In mid-January 1928, the Folgers read with horror a Washington Post article that a bill pending in Congress had identified Grant’s Row and the lot to the south for a Library of Congress annex. With trepidation, Henry wrote Herbert Putnam, the Librarian of Congress, “Should I give up the thought of making Washington the choice for a location [of my Shakespeare library]?” Without hesitation, an elated Dr. Putnam agreed to have the bill modified so that the annex would spare the Folgers’ property but occupy the remaining portion of the two lots. A wise Congress recognized the numerous benefits of having a private specialized library across the street from a public general library.

Grant’s Row, the fourteen redbrick rowhouses built by Albert Grant and which were demolished (Library of Congress)

Grant’s Row, the fourteen redbrick rowhouses built by Albert Grant and which were demolished (Library of Congress).

The Folgers would endow the library, build a decorative façade on its north side, and “dedicate this remarkable collection to the culture of the American public.” Both House and Senate passed the modified legislation unanimously. President Coolidge signed the bill (Public Law 70-453) into law on May 21, 1928.

It is especially appropriate in 2014—the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday—to celebrate the world-class Folger Shakespeare Library and its founders, who eighty-two years ago defined the purpose of the research library: to “give generations to come a better working knowledge and understanding of the literary works of the seventeenth century.”

grant.collectingStephen H. Grant is the author of Collecting Shakespeare: The Story of Henry and Emily Folgerpublished by Johns Hopkins. He is a senior fellow at the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training and the author of Peter Strickland: New London Shipmaster, Boston Merchant, First Consul to Senegal.

Meet Steve at Washington’s Politics and Prose Bookstore during his book talk and signing on July 26 at 6:00 p.m.





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The Press Reads: Why Mars

lambrightOur summer Friday series on the blog, The Press Reads, features short excerpts from recent JHUP books to whet your appetite and inspire timely additions to your summer reading list. With a nod to the 45th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, this week we offer a selection from W. Henry Lambright’s Why Mars: NASA and the Politics of Space Exploration. The author is a professor of public administration, international affairs, and political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. His books include Powering Apollo: James E. Webb of NASA and Space Policy in the Twenty-First Century, both published by Johns Hopkins.

Beginning with NASA’s establishment in 1958, the space agency looked to Mars as a compelling prize: the one place besides the Moon where robotic and human exploration could converge. Over the years, the human space venture to Mars remained a dream. It remained on NASA’s agenda, but always on a distant horizon. NASA’s Mars robotic program—the focus of this study—has now been actualized, marking one of NASA’s greatest achievements. What has been the nature of NASA’s Mars exploration program? How was it created and sustained? How has it adapted to scientific findings and shifting political winds? What have been the barriers to the program? How was opposition countered? Where is the program going? These and other questions have not been answered adequately in the existing literature. Most writing about Mars deals with specific missions and emphasizes the technical aspects of exploring the planet. The people, institutions, politics, and policy behind the technical exploits get relatively little attention. NASA’s role, although mentioned, is seldom addressed in depth. What is significant is that the missions form part of an ongoing government effort that has lasted over half a century and promises to extend indefinitely into the distant future. Mars is a federal program, but it is also a destination, a place and a magnet for the human imagination. For advocates of robotic and human Mars exploration—who seem often to disagree as much as they agree—it is a great quest, a difficult and noble journey into the unknown.

Mars exploration has evolved from the Mariner flybys of the 1960s, which provided the first blurred glimpses of the Red Planet, to orbiter and lander missions in the 1970s. Later, in the 1990s, NASA created machines capable of  not only landing but also roving the planet. The Clinton administration in 1996 set as a national goal that NASA embark on “a sustained program to support a robotic presence on the surface of Mars.”2 By the early  twenty-first century, NASA was building an intricate infrastructure on Mars, a technical system involving orbiters, landers, rovers, laboratories, and communications systems. NASA, moreover, had company on Mars, as  other nations sent their own devices. The names of the machines have become well known not only to scientists but also to the public over the years: Mariner, Viking, Pathfinder, Mars Global Surveyor, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix, MSL with its Curiosity rover, and others. With modern technology, citizens on Earth can participate in an epic adventure and explore Mars through robotic machines of incredible capacity. These machines extend human senses of sight, sound, and touch across millions of miles. They have taken NASA, America, and the world to a period that John Grotzinger, chief scientist of the MSL, called “the golden era of Mars exploration,” a time of “extended, overlapping, and increasingly coordinated missions.”

The evolution of the program has not been all positive. Nor is the future certain. There have been expensive failures amidst the successes. There have been ebbs and flows in scientific and public enthusiasm, heights of exultation, depths of despair. Between Viking in 1976 and Mars Observer’s launch in 1992, there was a long gap in exploratory missions; in addition, Mars Observer was dubbed a $1 billion failure. But NASA maintained the quest for Mars in the 1990s and into the new millennium. That it did so was not easy. It was a test of scientific, bureaucratic, and political resilience. The key issue in understanding the Mars exploration  program is one that is generic in American democracy: how to maintain a long-term, large-scale, high-risk, and expensive federal research and development program in the face of competing scientific, bureaucratic, and public priorities and ever-changing political winds.

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Visiting 1814 sites on the Mississippi and upper Great Lakes

Guest post by Carl Benn

The bicentennial of a number of War of 1812 battles that took place on the Mississippi River and across the upper Great Lakes occurs this summer. Naturally, some are being commemorated by volunteer groups, museums, and heritage organizations, often within the context of larger programs and exhibits exploring the western frontiers of the Anglo-American confrontation. Their efforts are important. They provide opportunities for those who care about the past to share their expertise and enthusiasm with the public. They also allow museums and heritage sites to communicate their distinctive ways of interpreting the past, based, to a large degree, on material culture and a sense of place. In the process, their labors enhance historical understanding, enrich the cultural life of their communities, and engage tourists and other visitors to their localities.

Fort Mackinac

Fort Mackinac

At the beginning of the 1814 campaign two centuries ago, the British occupied Fort Mackinac at the head of Lake Michigan (having captured it in 1812) as well as the strategic fur trade village of Prairie du Chien on the Mississippi River, far to the south in today’s Wisconsin. This vast region’s native population generally had allied with King George III. For many aboriginal people, the United States represented grave threats to their independence, well-being, and ways of life. After several years of low-level violence between natives and newcomers beginning around 1808, fighting escalated with the coming of the Anglo-American war in 1812.

British soldiers and sailors, local militiamen, and First Nations warriors along the Canadian-American border did far better in 1812 and 1813 in turning back the armies sent against them than most observers had expected. In the west, the capture of Mackinac not only gave the British control of the upper Great Lakes, but allowed them to supply native peoples along the upper Mississippi. They even continued to do so after losing control of Lake Erie in 1813 because they were able to utilize alternative communications links along old fur trade routes that ran northwest and north from Montreal and Toronto to Lake Huron and then to points west and south.

The first major move by the United States to reassert its authority on the Mississippi River in 1814 resulted in victory. On June 2, a force aboard a flotilla of gunboats from the American stronghold of St. Louis seized Prairie du Chien, meeting little resistance upon its arrival. Recognizing that the loss of the village could be fatal to their interests, the British dispatched an expedition south from Mackinac and, aided by hundreds of warriors, besieged and captured the newly constructed American fort there between July 17 and 21. Immediately afterwards, the famous Sauk war chief, Black Hawk, attacked and defeated American gunboats south of Prairie du Chien at Campbell’s Island on the Mississippi (near today’s Rock Island, Illinois). Meanwhile, to the north, British soldiers and First Nations warriors won a battle over a combined American army and navy force on August 4, 1814 that had sailed north from Detroit to retake Mackinac. The next month, the British and natives captured two schooners that their enemies had deployed to contest control of the upper lakes. The last major action on the Mississippi front that year occurred on September 5, when another flotilla of American gunboats came under attack at Credit Island (in today’s Davenport, Iowa). Again, Black Hawk was present as a senior military leader; the commanding officer of the opposing force was future president Zachary Taylor. The warriors won the battle, and Taylor retreated down the Mississippi. Thus, 1814 closed with the First Nations and the British retaining control of the northerly reaches of the Mississippi River and the upper Great Lakes.

One of a number of events planned by the ever-active Wisconsin Historical Society for this summer is a battle reenactment and encampment at Prairie du Chien on July 19 and 20 at its Villa Louis Historic Site. Farther north, there will be the recreation of the Battle of Mackinac two hundred years to the day—and at the same location—of the August 4, 1814 confrontation. This is just one of a wide range of programs at Mackinac State Historic Parks, where visitors also may explore a rich collection of fortifications and other heritage sites spanning the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries at the head of Lake Michigan. Across the border in Ontario, where the War of 1812 enjoys greater public interest than it does in the United States, several sites are offering programs this summer along with their regular exhibits, including Fort St. Joseph, located south of Sault Ste. Marie, the Nancy Island Historic Site at Wasaga Beach on Georgian Bay, and the old Royal Navy base nearby at Discovery Harbour in Penetanguishene.

fort madisonBeyond special events, the museums and parks throughout the old western theater of the War of 1812 also interpret its course (and many other absorbing histories) for the enlightenment of visitors. One of the numerous examples of small sites is an early-1900s memorial to the 1814 Battle of Campbell’s Island, which in itself is an interesting cultural artifact that speaks to the sensibilities and aesthetics of the time of the war’s centennial a century ago. Not far away, a 1916 replica of a blockhouse stands on Arsenal Island in Rock Island, Illinois. It resembles one built one hundred years earlier at Fort Armstrong as part of the American effort to dominate native affairs on the Mississippi within a few miles of Black Hawk’s village of Saukenuk. Unfortunately, the blockhouse often is overlooked because of the greater attractions of the neighboring Rock Island Arsenal Museum. Alternatively, visitors may enjoy the nearby nature preserve of Black Hawk State Park in Rock Island along with its Hauberg Museum, dedicated to indigenous history. About ninety miles to the south is the reconstructed Old Fort Madison, in the Iowa city of the same name. That post came under native attack during the war—with Black Hawk present—and is a focal point for the reenactment community of the area as well as an attraction for both residents and visitors. Beyond these events and sites, other historical societies at the state, county, and municipal levels have been organizing lectures and events, presenting web content, and building awareness. By sharing the region’s War of 1812 heritage during the bicentennial years, these organizations look back to an important period in North American history when natives and newcomers confronted each other over the future of the upper Mississippi and Great Lakes regions. Combined with their programs and exhibits, there is much to explore for people wishing to “visit” the 1814 Lake Michigan and Mississippi River campaigns and the great range of other histories that these organizations preserve and interpret for everyone’s benefit.

bennCarl Benn is the author of numerous works on the War of 1812 and First Nations history, including Native Memoirs from the War of 1812: Black Hawk and William Apess, published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He is a professor of history at Ryerson University in Toronto.

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How to write an epitaph

Guest post by Michael Wolfe

wolfeWe were honored this spring when Michael Wolfe’s wonderful book, Cut These Words into My Stone: Ancient Greek Epitaphs, made the long list of nominees for the 2014 PEN Literary Award for Poetry in Translation. We were thrilled in June when the book landed on the short list of five nominees.  To celebrate this good news (and pass the time while we await the announcement of the award recipient on July 30), Michael and the JHU Press are hosting an  “Epitaph Writing Contest” on Goodreads.  For the next several weeks, intrepid memorializers may submit their epitaphs on Michaels Goodreads page. Michael will select his favorite epitaph of the week, and the JHU Press will be pleased to send the weeks winner a copy of Cut These Words into My Stone. Later in August, the JHU Press Blog will publish the winning epitaphs with appreciative comments from Michael. Below are his indispensable tips for writing a timeless (and award-winning) epitaph. So, get writing (and remembering)!


Four Tips for Writing an Epitaph:

Epitaphs are among the oldest examples of writing in the world, and the form remains popular today. As long as we honor our dead, epitaphs will always be an important way to celebrate their lives. When writing your epitaph, keep in mind that:

1)    Epitaphs are short and concise.

2)    They convey a strong feeling.

3)    Often, someone is speaking in the first person (a relative, a friend; the deceased.)

4)    The writer should think about who is being addressed (for example, a passerby.)

Some Thoughts about These Tips:

Short, concise, and pithy” - Many epitaphs are just one or two lines long. Even those with four or six lines are still short. This limitation can be beneficial. It gives you a chance to sum up a person’s life in just a few words, to give it shape and express real emotion. An epitaph often contains the name of the deceased. Sometimes it includes their hometown and perhaps a reference to their age (old or young):

                          After many good times with friends his age,

                          Riding horses and playing ball,

                         Here he is, back in the earth he sprang from,

                         Twenty years old, his parents’ pride, Wayne Henry.

Some epitaphs also mention a person the deceased has left behind . . . a relative or friend:

                        Jean’s friends will mourn her, her husband too

                        And three small children, but no one knew

                        Her from start to sudden stop, the way her father

                        Knew her and her mother.

The feeling” - An epitaph may be celebratory or tragic. It is usually heartfelt:              

                           Billy fought three tours in Iraq.

                           When he signed up for more, we begged him not to.

                           Now he and his new friends are underground.

An epitaph may also be humorous:

                        Dr. Marcus was a terrible physician.

                        His final patient was a marble statue.

                        He wrapped its broken arm in gauze

                        And prescribed two aspirin just before he died.

                        This morning they couldn’t find a pulse.

                        Now we are carting the statue to the graveyard.

Or it may be ironic:

                        Phillip was an actor all his life.

                        He won awards in comedy and drama.

                        On stage he died a thousand times,

                        But never quite like this.

The best epitaphs are not overly sentimental or unbearably sad. An epitaph is a chance to sum up a life and express deep feelings. An epitaph is a genuine expression.

Who is speaking the epitaph? - Most good epitaphs have a voice. The epitaph may be spoken by a loved one or a friend, a parent, an employer, a neighbor, a fellow soldier, maybe the owner of a horse or dog or other pet, etc.:

                        Maria’s parents put up this stone,

                        Weeping with every letter as we wrote it.

Or it may be the voice of the deceased:

                        After drinking a lot, eating a lot,

                        And speaking badly of everyone,

                        Here I lie where I was born,

                        Alfred Stearn, in a Mississippi bayou.

Who does the epitaph address?” - Some epitaphs make a general statement to the world:

                        Here lies Thales of Miletus. He invented astronomy.

                        His name will be written in the stars.


                        Here lies the poet Robert Frost.

                        He had a lover’s quarrel with the world.

Some epitaphs address a passerby:

                        Stranger, if you pass this grave don’t smirk

                        Because it only holds a dog . . .

Some epitaphs speak directly to a loved one:

                        You were my wife. If now and then,

                        You find yourself with time to kill

                        From raising our children and entertaining friends,

                        Come visit me some afternoon, and stay an hour

                        So we can talk. And if you want, bring flowers.

Good luck in the Epitaph Writing Contest!


wolfe comp.inddMichael Wolfe is a poet, author, documentary film producer, and president of Unity Productions Foundation, a nonprofit media organization. Wolfe is the author of many books of verse and prose, including Cut These Words into My Stone: Ancient Greek Epitaphs, now available from JHU Press.


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