Who am I?
My wife and I moved to Illinois when our daughter was a baby, and I have been a scientist and professor at the University of Illinois ever since. I pursue research in elementary particle physics and do service work in higher education policy. But nothing makes me prouder than being able to say that I am a teacher.
The professional culture of elementary particle physics is one of engagement, compromise, and respect. We work towards common goals, and tolerate differing opinions and priorities in our large collaborations. It is a productive way to organize our endeavors: we take on fiercely complicated challenges, at the very limits of human intelligence, making steady—and sometimes remarkable—forward progress.
This is the way the governance of the larger community of the United States should function, but does not. I saw this first hand while assisting the Department of Justice in the prosecution of a criminal ring which sold fake university credentials—including medical degrees—and helped their foreign customers obtain U.S. visas.
The diploma mill industry sells over 100,000 fake degrees per year, in medicine, engineering, education, psychology, and other fields. I first learned of this in 2003 when a salesman tried to sell me a PhD in “systems engineering.” Alarmed by this, I published a report about diploma mills as an act of faculty public service. A handful of industry members—I learned their names later—began threatening my family and me.
I convinced Washington state’s Office of the Attorney General to investigate the Spokane-based diploma mill which was the source of many of the threats. I became the investigation’s de facto electronic evidence specialist, and helped pitch the case to the Department of Justice
Publicity from the case caught the attention of three congressional offices, which asked me to assist with legislation that was incorporated into the House version of the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008. The new law instructed the Federal Trade Commission to take action against the substantial domestic industry in fake degrees.
But the Republican party had been receiving generous campaign contributions from the owner of the largest diploma mill in the United States, and the ranking minority member on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions gutted most of what I had helped write. In a meeting with his staff, I was told, in effect, that there was no federal interest in suppressing the interstate sale of fake medical degrees.
The investigative press is filled with stories of dirty money corrupting our politics. But I experienced this first-hand: people selling fake medical degrees had bombarded my daughter with obscene electronic messages and threatened to kill my family. And their campaign contributions were more important to a senator from a western state than the protection of unsuspecting patients from the dangers of untrained physicians.
This must stop.
Why am I running?
Our governance is so badly broken that the primary obligation of a member of Congress—to represent the interests of the residents of his or her district—now takes a back seat to currying favor with wealthy benefactors. I believe that the best way for me to help change this is to launch myself at the problem squarely, to stand for election to the U.S. House of Representatives. Since I have been working in national higher education policy, I am interested in working in the same arena, but from the legislative side, rather than running for a seat in the state legislature.
I come from a professional culture of collaboration and cooperation, in which scientists define clear goals, establish metrics to evaluate progress, and execute research projects guided by data and analysis, rather than preconception and prejudice. If we learn that we are wrong in our thinking, and that our models are incorrect, we discard them.
This is how we should develop public policy: build it on data and incorporate into it sufficient metrology to evaluate whether or not goals are being met. And when a program is not meeting its benchmarks, retool it or scrap it altogether. But this is not how our dysfunctional, irresponsible Congress goes about its business.
There are currently 227 members of Congress who were trained as lawyers, but only three scientists. Now, the law is an honorable profession, but lawyers are taught to argue about evidence. In contrast, scientists discover facts, then act on them. We have entirely too much argument in Washington, and too much misrepresentation of the motivations behind (and consequences of) policy choices such as renewal of tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans.
There is a body count associated with bad policy. Fifty countries have infant mortality rates lower than the United States. Our life expectancy is 51st at 78.5 years; Australia, France, Israel, Italy, Japan, Spain, Sweden, and a dozen other countries have life expectancies that are greater than 81 years. And our education metrics–how our students compare in mathematics ability to those in other countries, for example–are abysmal.
This can be changed.
Many of the most pressing problems faced by residents of the Illinois 13th Congressional District also bedevil communities throughout the rest of the United States. My highest priorities are to return the country to full employment, improve the effectiveness, availability, and affordability of pre-K through baccalaureate education, and guarantee quality healthcare for all Americans. But I do not want to give the impression that I will neglect other important issues: protecting women’s reproductive rights, establishing national marriage equality, developing sources of clean, renewable energy, and fighting the corrosive effect of money in politics, to name a few.
Resolution of these problems is not a simple matter, given the amount of gridlock in Washington, and which could persist as long as the Republicans hold the majority in the House of Representatives. It will be necessary to stage a multi-prong attack on all of these issues, including non-legislative approaches, to move forward.
Here is what I mean. In my experience—both in higher education policy and in science policy—agencies in the Executive Branch are sensitive to pressure from Congressional offices, and can be induced to create pilot programs, demonstrator projects, and other local initiatives. For example, remarkable results from a Kansas study of remedial mathematics education suggest that the community colleges in IL13 should propose to extend the Kansas results to a larger student population, which includes adult learners. I have discussed this with several of the college and university presidents in my district; target agencies would be the Departments of Labor and Education. With enough engagement by community leaders, IL13 could become a source for proposals to address problems of education, community health, and poverty that could eventually serve as models for the larger community.
It is also my experience, primarily while doing Capitol Hill advocacy for science funding, that data taken alone are insufficient to influence public policy. Responsible policy is built on careful analysis, but social justice issues regarding poverty, access to health care, and more compete for the attention of policy makers alongside a host of other concerns. We must accompany our analyses with compelling stories of heartbreak and triumph if we are to engage the emotions, and consequently, the attention of other legislators.
I have never held elected office, but my work in education policy—concerning postsecondary quality assurance, degree fraud, and international academic standards—landed me on the board of directors of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation for six years. As a CHEA board member, I was able to work on a variety of problems relating to degree completion and regulation of for-profit schools. Around the time I rotated off the CHEA board, the accreditation system began to turn its attention to college affordability and the alignment of K-12 systems with community colleges. So I have had some experience working on a number of the issues in education that are demanding of federal involvement.
My DFA Values
The most important obligation for a member of Congress is to represent all residents in his or her district, not just those with the financial resources to post generous campaign contributions. People come first; corporations are not people.
An honest campaign for office will reflect these same values: at its foundation, the campaign must establish a strong ground game and reach out to all counties in the district. It is only through direct contact with constituents that the campaign can learn of their concerns, and of their priorities. One of the proper roles for government is to partner with local communities, providing support in their efforts to address their problems of community development, employment, and education.
Your question makes reference to security. I take this to refer to matters of job and food security, and preservation of the social safety net—under vigorous attack by the Republican Party—which must be protected from attempts to give programs such as Medicare and Social Security over to Wall Street. This is more a matter of what to do in office, though during the campaign I must make it clear to voters that I will do my best to protect them from right wing efforts to shred the safety net, and will not back down under political pressure.
My Campaign is People Powered!
We are working with Progressive Democrats of America organizers across the district, in particular in Madison, Sangamon, McLean, and Champaign Counties. My Politics Director, who worked on David Gill’s campaign in this district in 2012, is a PDA organizer.