News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Bringing home the bacon, cooking the pork

The facts are not something you really want to bother nice people with, but South Dakota ranks at the absolute bottom, as it does for so many categories of human endeavor, for its programs and its support of scholarship and research at its universities. It took scientists from throughout the world to drag the powers that be into considering the abandoned Homestake Goldmine as a potential site for a world-class research laboratory. Even now, state leaders see the laboratory more as a Disneyland attraction where tourists can come and catch a glimpse of scientists in their wild state rather than as a place scholars and researchers investigate some questions about matter and the nature of the universe. Tourism is more comprehensible than science to many salt-of-the-earth South Dakotans.

The Congressional earmark of $1 million for the Tom Daschle Center for Public Service and Representative Democracy at SDSU has some media and many blogs breathing heavily and noisily and making indignant gasping sounds. To them, bringing up the Daschle Center is like opening a centerfold from Penthouse and holding a circle jerk. It provides the anti-intellectual, anti-real-education factions an occasion to get off on something.

The argument is that it is all a matter of pork barrel. Some people have pointed out that Daschle never returned to South Dakota after he was booted out of office and he wasn't anything like a president to deserve the honor. The brilliance of the the comments in circulation is blinding, so readers beware. Only a few commentators note that the Center is an intellectual and educational enterprise that would, as with the Homestake lab, give the state something it does not have. And apparently many people do not want.

Of the state's universities, SDSU has done many things right in the past decades. That Daschle would give his official papers to the university and help start a center for study and teaching is probably an affront to those factions that think that education, research, and scholarship threaten good, old South Dakota values and constitute a direct assault on their religious faith. Others see it as a resource that can at long last give the state some opportunities for study and research that can keep some of our brightest students within the state and create a chance to build the state intellectually similar to the way that the College of Agriculture at SDSU has contributed to building it agriculturally throughout the years. For many, bringing South Dakota out of the 19th century is too frightening and too offensive an idea to contemplate, especially if it would involve the name of Demon Daschle. It may not be a majority that rejects such an addition to the state, but there are times when the minority should have its way. And with our state universities having been turned into Orwellian Ministries of Truth where professors use their positions to generate brain-washing propaganda for particular political entities, any attempt to establish a legitimate educational enterprise would be doomed by the prevailing climate. Having a Tom Daschle Center on the campus from where Jon Lauck conducted his character assassination campaign against Daschle is a deadly irony that signals some severe intellectual incompatibilities.

There are matches that just are not meant to be. A center for the study and development of public service and representative democracy in South Dakota just might be one of them.

The idea of some kind of an intellectual enterprise to study and advocate programs for the development of South Dakota and the region of the northern plains has been kicking around for a long time, including when Tom Daschle was in the Senate. North Dakota launched a center for rural development, which I haven't heard about in some time. However, around the election of 2004, a number of people on the northern plains were talking about the need to have a coordinated effort deal with the issues peculiar to the region. When Daschle was defeated, those people immediately started suggesting to him that he could use his prominence and influence to promote and, perhaps, sponsor such a study center. I recall being at a farewell reception a few days after the election at the Harley Davidson dealer in Sioux Falls when the subject was broached.

Because Aberdeen is Daschle's hometown, a number of people thought it would be a likely place to have a study center. The proposals fell into two camps. One was for a school of public service such as the one proposed for SDSU. Some alumni from Northern State University were pushing that proposal very hard. However, NSU does not have the academic reputation, the resources, or the will for any high-powered research and learning programs needed to attract the funding and support for such a venture.

Aberdeen had a better chance at being the site for a think tank that would focus on the northern plains region. Its location is central, it is large enough to offer some amenities, and it had the interest of potential supporters. In its initial concept, the center would be affiliated with the state's university system but would have ties with other state systems. It would be largely supported by grants and subscribed donations. The idea was that Tom Daschle's influence could attract the needed subscriptions.

Some of the financial supporters of this idea apparently had the idea of compiling a comprehensive plan before presenting it to Tom Dasche. They knew that he was interested in conbributing to his alma mater, SDSU. They sent a study team to Aberdeen to develop a fairly detailed proposal. This all happened between November of 2004 and February 2005.

The team members came to Aberdeen in those early months of 2005 to formulate their report. At that time, I had access to office space they could use and work from while they were in town. My only role in their work was to coordinate their access to the office, but I was able to help them with some aspects of their community analysis. That is how I happened to be present one gloomy Sunday morning in February when they disqualified Aberdeen as the site for any kind of intellectual enterprise.

I have been involved in market studies of communities over the years, but I was surprised at what was considered in this community study and how the factors were analyzed. Aberdeen had many strong points, but transportation was a nagging problem for the study team. While the town is in a central point for the northern plains, it is isolated by time and distance from the major cultural centers, the Twin Cities and Denver. However, that isolation was also seen as an advantage for intensive study projects that require concentration and freedom from distractions. The checklist of factors was long and detailed, and Aberdeen did not fare too badly. Its detractions were shared by most communities on the northern plains, and it had some advantages.

But when the team started talking about community attitudes and intellectual and cultural environment, Aberdeen was quickly dismissed. Racial attitudes were a big factor. Open government and relationships between officials and constituents was an area of concern. The Aberdeen police department and the city were being rocked by controversy at the time. Cultural and intellectual climate were the major concern.

I was surprised at the extent the researchers went to assess intellectual attitudes. A main focal point of analysis was the local newspaper and its discussion boards. They were analyzed for how they reflect the intellectual and cultural activity in the community and how the community regards it. I noted that they had printouts from the newspaper discussion board which were lavishly marked with pink highlighter. Passages which showed intolerance, viciousness, and malicious tendencies were marked for special attention. Printouts from some blogs were similarly analyzed in this way.

I was curious as to how individual responses on discussion boards and blogs were regarded as representative of the community. One of the researchers explained that there are mean and vicious people everywhere. What is telling is how the community handles them and responds to them. She then pointed out how accusatory and defamatory statements dominated the discussion on the newspaper letters to the editor, its discussion boards, and some blogs. While editorial policy controls what appears in the various media, editorial policy also reflects what "sells" in a community.

She said asking intellectual workers to come to a community with bad attitudes about intellectual enterprises is like asking a string quartet to play in a biker bar.

And that may be the case with the proposed Tom Daschle Center for Public Service and Representaive Democracy.

Simutaneously posted at KELOLAND.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States