Is our vocabulary really that limited?

In the last two weeks I have heard the following words be used in a derogatory fashion: “Jew”, “gay”, and “retard”.   Worse, all three were being applied to a specific person in response to specific behaviour.  Even worse, all three words were uttered by people who have higher education.  Perhaps we need to offer a special course to all first year students?  We could title it, “Expanding your vocabulary beyond four letter and other inappropriate words”.  The “Jew” and “gay” comments were in relatively private settings (less than 100 people), the “retard” comment was on the twitter sphere by the queen of shallowness, Ann Coulter.  If you have missed the news around this, she is referring to Obama.

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I’ve never understood how she gets the airtime that she does or why anyone would waste $10 on one of her books.  If you want to see her “wisdom” up against Bill Maher, watch this.

While many tweeters put her in her place very quickly, the best response was made by John Franklin Stephens.  Kudos to him for taking the high road rather than stooping to her level.  His letter to Coulter is definitely worth reading and should provide a ray of hope that there are still kind and generous people in this world.  Its unfortunate that they don’t get the same airtime as the loud bullies like Coulter.  (Click the image below for the full letter).

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Yet another post on drunken student behaviour

I’ve posted before about alcohol use/abuse (and earlier) on campus and while I support the notion of “students growing up” I truly think that universities, administrators, faculty, staff and students need to approach this problem (and it is a problem) with renewed interest.  The article below is about how student groups were shocked/dismayed/upset at the University of Alberta’s recent decision to ban alcohol in public portions of some student residences.  I’m actually surprised that such use was ever allowed.  Yes the drinking age in Alberta is 18 but surely there are many minors in residence and why would public areas of a residence building ever be appropriate for drinking, drunken behaviour, and vomiting?  If you don’t think student drinking is a problem, read this – it’s disturbing and shocking.

A university must be primarily a place of higher education.  That requires a focus on learning and rarely do learning and alcohol go together.  In fact, learning and alcohol ABUSE never go together – well except for the first time you wake up with a hangover and say “never again”.  I’m all for holistic student development; university should not just be about formal learning in the classroom.  This is an excellent time to explore new things and meet new people.  Those don’t require being drunk.  If students think that wandering through four years of university in a drunken haze is acceptable, society has done something incredibly wrong.  If you want to drink your brains out, withdraw from school and fill your boots.

Kudos to the University of Alberta for their stance!

Click the image below for the full article and comments – trust me, the comments are entertaining.

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Running A Student Pub (into the ground)

Earlier this spring, the University of Windsor Students’ Alliance ( announced that they were closing the student-owned-and-operated pub (The Thirsty Scholar) due to financial reasons. This announcement surprised me; why can’t a business successfully sell beer to an audience traditionally associated with beer and pubs? I suppose there are a myriad of potential reasons—students don’t like beer, the pub is paying outrageous rent to its landlord, or general mismanagement for starters. I decided to dig through the pub’s financial statements (they should be publicly available, as records for most student organizations are). You should check their financials web page… you may have better luck than I did ( I couldn’t find a working link to any financial statements for the pub that were more recent than April 30, 2009. Note to the UWSA executive: I suggest you hire a computer science student to fix up your website.

What’s the point of looking at these financials? What can they really tell us? Financial statements should be one source for examining an entity’s history. With a little interpretation, we can usually learn quite a lot. Financial statement sleuthing may not be as popular as CSI-style forensics, but really is not that much different. Let’s take a look at the statements that were available.  Note to reader: you will want to open a set of the financial statements and follow along with me.

The second page of the 2009 financial statements is the “Review Engagement Report.” A review engagement is one type of assurance on the financial statements. It’s not nearly as good as an audit engagement, but provides some level of comfort that the financial statements are not grossly misstated. The third page is the index—not useful.

The fourth page is the “Statement of Income” for the year with comparatives for the prior year. We find out that the pub had just over $450,000 of revenue, compared to $511,000 the year before, with beer sales declining from $172,000 to $123,000 (a 28% decline!). Gross profit increased though, which is usually good news. Gross profit is the amount left over after paying for the direct costs of beer, food, and liquor. For 2009, gross profit was $201,702. In order for the pub to be profitable, all the rest of the expenses needed to be less than that. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case. Actual expenses were $261,854, resulting in an operating loss for 2009 of $60,152. That’s a slight improvement from the prior year when the pub had an operating loss of over $95,000. What was by far the biggest expense? Wages. In fact, the wage expense exceeded the gross profit in both 2009 and 2008. That means the pub had no chance of being profitable even before it paid for any advertising, insurance, policing and security, or repairs on the facility. I hunted around for some industry statistics on drinking establishments and food services and I found the following data ( average cost of goods sold was 36% of revenue, and average labour cost was 33.9% of revenue. The Thirsty Scholar’s numbers for 2009 were: Cost of goods sold, 56% of revenue; and labour, 48% of revenue. That both of those figures were so grossly out-of-line with industry norms suggests management incompetence. I’ve seen similar issues with student-run businesses before. Don’t get me wrong, I love student-run and student-owned businesses, but they must be run by people with appropriate training and it is important that the student associations ensure the managers are properly trained. Ok, enough on the income statement, let’s move on.

The fifth page is the “Statement of Retained Earnings,” which accumulates all the profit or loss retained by the business. Again, it isn’t good news for the Thirsty Scholar. By April 2009, they had accumulated total losses of almost $1 million. The losses that we saw on the income statement for 2009 and 2008 were not a short-term issue—the pub must have been accumulating losses for quite a while.

The sixth page, the balance sheet, is the last that I will examine for this post. Remember the key accounting equation: Assets = Liabilities + Equity. The Thirsty Scholar had total assets of $29,764 (mostly cash and accounts receivable). Their liabilities? $885,359! That’s incredible! They owed almost 30 times what they had in assets. I’ve rarely seen such a poor Asset:Liability ratio, and without digging too much further it seems pretty obvious that this business is broke both financially and structurally. Shut it down, pull the pin.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this somewhat macabre walk through the financial statements of a student pub. Next time you’re sitting in your local school pub enjoying a beverage, don’t forget the lessons we can learn from examining the financial statements of a business.

Drink responsibly!!

Note: this blog was originally posted on my site hosted by Pearson Education (

Alcohol round 2

A reader and I had a face-to-face discussion a few months back regarding alcohol use on campus which led to my initial post regarding alcohol use/abuse by university students. I received a follow up email from that reader this week after they had a conversation with a relative currently attending Harvard.  Apparently alcohol is not an issue on Harvard, or at least for this particular university student.  The student is too busy with their academic studies and the legal drinking age in Massachusetts is 21 so they can’t legally drink even if they had the time.  I was glad to hear that but a bit skeptical.  Family morals and expectations probably have more to do with this individual story than any other factor.  That is great news for this particular student (and their family) but not necessarily great news for the rest of the higher education system.


Earlier in the week I read a news article about a new study that is going to study alcohol usage for 2,000 university students for the next five years.  In particular, the research will examine the impact on actual consumption that perceived levels of peer drinking has.  That is, does a student drink more if they think their peers are drinking more?  I suspect the answer is yes but I look forward to hearing the definitive answer.

I was trying to reconcile my preconceptions about drinking and peer-drinking with the one piece of data from Harvard.  Is Harvard really all that different?  Perhaps.  On average Harvard may have more intelligent, wealthier, more driven students than other institutions.  On the other hand, George W attended Harvard so maybe Harvard students really aren’t that much different.  Does Harvard have an issue with alcohol abuse?  A quick search on Google found the following: Harvard’s Alcohol Amnesty Policy.  Harvard thinks that students are more likely to seek help for alcohol related issues if Harvard promises to NOT contact the student’s parents, hence the “amnesty”.  Perhaps Harvard believes that its students are mature enough or bright enough to use alcohol sparingly.  Apparently not.  Alcohol related patients at the university infirmary have increased by 43% in the last two years.  And those are years when George W wasn’t even on campus!

Finally, while Googling around this evening I found this tragic story: Alcohol Poisoning Suspected Cause of Clemson Student’s Death.  Very sad.  I met a number of Clemson staff a month ago at a conference.  All the staff I met were very involved in student life services beyond just academic stuff and I know they will be feeling the pain.  I was very impressed with what I saw going on at Clemson – great student support, great residential programs, excellent faculty-student interactions, lots of effort to ensure students had the necessary support to succeed.  Despite all that help, this student still made some poor choices last Friday night.

I’m not sure why this topic keeps rolling around my brain.  I have no expectations of prohibition but it does seem to be heavily centered around education.  Education of the risks of alcohol.  If universities do not take responsibility for the education or at least ensure more effort to provide educational opportunities for students about alcohol then I’m not really sure we should label ourselves Institutions of Higher Education.  I would love for some students to leave some comments on this.  Why do you binge drink?  It is costly and makes you feel crappy the next day.  What are the upsides?

Community on campus- what are we doing?

Perhaps I’m naive but I fully believe that the best student university experience is one that is integrated: academics, sports, health, housing, student growth – all aspects of student life.  That requires breaking down or minimizing barriers between those functional areas on campus.  How many faculty cross the physical threshold into student housing?  How many faculty hang out with staff or students outside of formal meetings?  Do faculty job requirements and incentives promote such cross-over or discourage us from doing it?

I’ve got a very bright 14 year old daughter (and an equally smart 11 year old son – there I was the “equal Dad”!) who will likely (hopefully) attend a university before too long.  What type of experience do I want her to have?  Do I honestly believe that she would get an amazing experience at my institution?  The best possible experience?  And if I don’t believe that why do I think that a sub-par experience is acceptable for other parents’ kids?








Its easy to look at this situation and say that change is out of our hands; an institution is an unmovable force best left alone.  Realistically what can one faculty member do to promote change on their campus or even more broadly, on campuses across Canada?  Not much sadly, but I am confident that one faculty member promoting change is likely to accomplish more than no faculty members promoting change.  As Parker Palmer reminded me in The Heart of Higher Education, across North America campuses are full of individuals that want a better student experience.  If they each think they are the only one on their campus they will keep their heads down and never connect with other like-minded people.  If we each raise our hand and say “I’m interested in promoting change and improving the state of education” perhaps small communities can form where the wheels will start turning.  At the least we will be able to take comfort or cover as we run into walls and resistance.

Let me bring this back to the topic at hand which was building community and improving the student experience rather than faculty revolt or faculty revolution.  If we want to bridge the divide between faculty and students and faculty and staff and begin to build true “community” there are small, relatively easy steps we can take.  First, we need to lead by example; that is, faculty themselves must become a community rather than merely a set of people.  A community involves support, encouragement, valuable and constructive feedback, laughter, and ultimately sharing in each others peaks and valleys.  Let’s stop shaking hands and give each other a hug once in a while.  Start dropping in for random chats with faculty down your hall or even way across the campus.  Make connections that are outside your comfort zone.  If we want students to grow and be comfortable with the unknown we should probably model courage and tackle the unknown as well, even if that unknown is a really odd faculty member with leather patches on the elbow of their tweed jacket.

I admit that building community is much bigger than simply being friendly towards our colleagues but before we run we need to crawl.