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Matt Lauer was king of ‘Today,’ but his reign was not benevolent

If you make a man a pasha, there is a good chance he will act like one.

The near-daily sweep of men from positions of power in the wake of sexual harassment allegations ascended to a new and more culturally intimate level with the ouster of Matt Lauer from the “Today” show on Wednesday.

For 20 years, Lauer has been a constant presence on early-morning television, prepping viewers for the day’s news, scandals, setbacks and celebrations. The on-air staff of “Today” was, to many, an extended family, anchored by its boyish patriarch and a succession of smart and lovely female co-hosts.

Of course the problem with having a patriarch, boyish or no, is that it establishes a patriarchy. Ever since Jane Pauley met Bryant Gumbel, networks have clung to the notion that a successful morning show requires some sort of “marriage” in the middle, a bantering between the sexes to give the downtime juice and make viewers feel like they were hanging out with friends over their morning coffee.

Unfortunately, the dynamic of many of these shows, including “CBS This Morning,” from which Charlie Rose was recently canned for similar reasons, is based on the man having the bigger role (and, inevitably, paycheck).

The longer Lauer reigned at “Today,” the more the marriage in the middle came to resemble one of the grimmer bigamous situations in “Big Love,” with Lauer at command central, surrounded by equally talented yet clearly not as high-status female co-hosts and co-anchors.

Two of whom—Savannah Guthrie and Hoda Kotb—had to do the dirty work of breaking the Lauer news, which they had obviously just received themselves, on Wednesday morning.

And, unfortunately, it looks like it was an example of form following function. While on screen, Lauer mugged and teased in his self-conscious, self-deprecating way, offscreen he allegedly did what many monarchs do. In a report in Variety that quickly followed news of his firing, several women accused Lauer of systematically sexualizing and harassing female employees; the desk in his office, the report notes, was rigged with a button that could lock the door from the inside.

As with Roger Ailes, who, until he stepped down under similar charges, oversaw a Fox News newsroom filled with glamorized women in tight sheath dresses, the sexism on “Today” existed in plain sight.

Barbara Walters was the first official female co-host of “Today,” and since the idea of two female hosts is apparently heresy, the tradition since has been that if a woman is in one chair, a man will be in another. Gumbel and Pauley were the first to turn that template into a team; though their relationship took time to jell, it eventually included a familiarity that added a new dimension (and higher ratings) to “Today.” So much so that when Deborah Norville replaced Pauley, she lamented breaking up a professional marriage.

Norville was quickly replaced by Katie Couric, then Gumbel by Lauer, but the idea that “Today’s” co-hosts should function as a professional couple remained.

As television news, and culture in general, grew more informal and branded-personality-driven, so did “Today.” Couric went on to host the “CBS Evening News” and was replaced by Meredith Vieira. By then Lauer was the unofficial star of “Today,” praised for his ability to do a tough interview one minute and goof off with the gang the next. He trotted around the globe in “Where in the World is Matt Lauer,” co-hosted the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and the opening of various Olympics. He and Viera appeared to get along like gangbusters and “Today” owned the a.m.

But when Ann Curry replaced Vieira in 2011, the chemistry was not as good. Curry’s quieter mien clearly made Lauer uneasy, and it quickly became plain that the responsibility for fixing the “problem” was hers. Ratings fell, but Lauer got a new, reportedly $25-million contract and Curry got the ax. When Curry broke down on camera and later spoke of the show and network as a boy’s club, Lauer’s first reaction was to blame her and then the media. For a moment the smiley-face curtain was pulled back; “Today” was a workplace like many, filled with competition, cutthroat contract negotiation and the ruthlessness of a high-stakes enterprise, and Lauer was the one with protection. If he had not orchestrated Curry’s removal, he certainly had done nothing to prevent it.

Which is why, minutes after the news of Lauer’s firing broke, Curry’s name was trending on social media, as thousands wondered how she was feeling and what “Today” would be like if she and Guthrie were the co-hosts.

Morning television is not Noah’s Ark, so hosts do not have to come in his ‘n’ her matching sets. Guthrie and Kotb seemed pretty comfortable, and as shows as disparate as “Cag-ney & Lacey” and “The View” have proven, you can have a show with just female leads and people will watch.

More important, the notion that male and female co-hosts or co-anything are obligated to flirt or tease to goose the ratings has got to go. Chemistry is fine, but it comes in all sorts of flavors and professional is one of them. ABC’s “Good Morning America” has his ‘n’ her co-hosts, Robin Roberts and George Stephanopoulos, who are friendly and gracious to each other without inching into “Oh, there you go again,” “Moonlighting” territory, and if there’s a star, it’s Roberts.

Lauer and Rose, are, of course, completely responsible for their own actions, and many men oversee female employees without harassing them. But sexual harassment isn’t so much about sex as it is about power, the belief that a person’s value, to a show, to a company, to the world, is so great that the word “no” literally does not apply to him (or her).

NBC certainly seemed to think Lauer could do anything—during the Sochi Olympics in 2014 (at which at least one of the harassment incidents was alleged to have happened), he even took over for veteran Bob Costas, faring only slightly better than he did during his ghastly and blatantly unfair interviews of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the presidential campaign.

And, as the increasing number of allegations appears to indicate, Lauer believed he could do anything too.

Schultz: Our Caribbean families are your fellow Americans

About a month after Hurricane Maria, I stopped at a UPS store to ask if it was still offering a discounted rate to ship supplies to St. Croix.

The young manager shook her head even as she answered yes.

“We are, through the month. But I don’t understand why we’re helping them when we aren’t doing enough for Americans who were hit by hurricanes.”

I set my purse on the counter and took a deep breath.

“Which Americans do you mean?” I asked.

“The ones in this country?” she said. “You know—Texas? Florida?”

I like this young woman. Her store is new to the area, and is on my way home from work. I’ve stopped by a lot lately to ship boxes to our daughter’s family in New England. For my regular shipments to St. Croix, however, I use the U.S. Postal Service, which charges less than UPS.

I’m at least two-and-a-half decades older than she is and, in that moment, I reminded myself to act like it. I ignored the voice of outrage in my head—down girl, I silently scolded—and explained, as calmly as I could muster:

“Texas and Florida are getting a lot of help, as they should. St. Croix—and Puerto Rico—still have no power and lack basic necessities. Like fresh water. Medical supplies. Cellphone reception. No air conditioning or even working fans in that tropical heat.”

“Still,” she said. “We should be helping our own people first.”

I smiled, but it may have been the kind my daughter used to say didn’t match the voice coming out of Mom’s head.

“Did you know that Puerto Rico and St. Croix are U.S. territories?”

“I know we own them.”

Deep breath.

“They’re American citizens. The people who live in St. Croix and Puerto Rico are as American as you and I.”

“Really,” she said, her voice softer. “I had no idea.”

You have plenty of company, I wanted to say, but didn’t.

You and 54 percent of your fellow Americans, if recent polling is accurate, I wanted to say, but didn’t.

It makes me sad that I have to keep explaining this, I wanted to say. My grandson and his parents live in St. Croix, and I’m worried sick about them, I wanted to say.

And I did.

“Wow,” she said, her voice even softer. “What are their names?

“Clayton,” I said, feeling my shoulders soften. “He’s my grandson. He’s 9.”

And then I couldn’t stop talking. Bless her for listening as I unloaded the bundle of worries of that screaming voice in my head.

Our son, Andy, is a math professor in St. Croix. Our daughter-in-law, Stina, runs the Montessori school there. They moved there to make a difference in a community that is poor but, just like most of us, full of dreams.

On the day I stopped by that UPS store, Andy and Stina still didn’t know how much damage their schools or their home had sustained because they weren’t yet allowed to visit them. Curfew was strictly enforced to protect residents from fallen electrical lines. And trees. And buildings.

For the duration of the hurricane, they brought food, supplies and their generator to another family’s sturdier house. They are close friends, a common gift among the 50,000 or so people who live in too-often forgotten U.S. territory. Many families who could afford to leave did as soon as they could fly out. The families who have stayed to rebuild—families like my grandson and his parents—have no idea how many will return.

Earlier this week, my son sent a three-word text from his cellphone—it works again!—to mine: “We have power!” Two months and one week after Hurricane Maria had pummeled St. Croix, they can finally take warm showers and use their washing machine.

I’m thinking of another young woman I met, three weeks after Hurricane Maria. I had just landed in Boston and was driving a rental car to the exit gate. She greeted me with a smile as she checked my receipt. Her cellphone rang, and she apologized as she quickly looked to see who was calling. Her face fell as she shoved the unanswered phone back into her pocket.

“I have family in Puerto Rico,” she said.

“Have you been able to talk to them?”

She shook her head, fighting tears. “No, not yet. We have no idea if they’re OK.”

She handed me the receipt. “Thank you for asking. It’s just that—”

She didn’t need to finish that sentence. “We have family in St. Croix,” I told her.

We agreed to pray for each other’s families, and I drove away.

Other Views: The perils of a ‘grad student tax’

American higher education is the envy of the world, but universities in other countries are catching up. This year, for the first time in its 14-year history, the Times Higher Education ranking of international universities named two non-U.S. institutions best and second-best in the world.

Third and fourth place went to two California institutions, Cal Tech and Stanford. Recent projections from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggest that China will outpace the U.S. in research and development spending in just two years. If the United States wants to keep its competitive edge, it must increase support for higher education.

The GOP’s tax plans do the exact opposite. In fact, they may upend graduate education and research altogether.

While some proposed changes to the tax code may benefit research and innovation (the reduction of the corporate tax could allow companies to spend more on R&D), both the House and Senate reform bills are likely to hurt universities. Both bills would make it harder to itemize charitable contributions, an action that could reduce giving to nonprofit universities and other organizations by as much as $13 billion annually. They also both include a 1.4 percent tax on investment returns at private, nonprofit institutions that enroll at least 500 students and have endowment assets in excess of $250,000 per student—a provision that likely will affect the Claremont Colleges.

But the House bill, on the whole, is worse for American higher education. It would tax tuition waivers for graduate students and university employees.

Universities fund doctoral education in multiple ways. Many PhD students receive a fellowship or scholarship that covers their cost of living in return for working as teaching or research assistants. Graduate students with fellowships are supposed to spend between 20 and 40 hours a week working while also attending classes and performing research. Some doctoral students pay tuition for those classes, but as many as a quarter of all graduate students receive a waiver. (Nominal tuition at a well-resourced university could easily cost more than $50,000 dollars a year.)

In the current tax code, the government can tax certain types of fellowship funding but does not tax tuition waivers. The House version of the bill would change that.

Many graduate students struggle to make ends meet. In cities with a high cost of living, their $25,000 fellowships are just enough for rent, gas and food. Removing the tuition waiver exemption from the tax code would increase their cost of living dramatically. When a $50,000 tuition waiver is included as taxable income, students who take home only $25,000 per year would be taxed as if they made $75,000 per year. For many students, that would mean a 400 percent increase in their taxes.

In effect, removing the exemption creates a grad student tax.

This is personal for me on multiple levels. First, I’m a graduate student. Second, I teach an undergraduate public policy course—I’m supposed to train the next generation of leaders how to make effective public policy. One of our class units focuses on taxation. I teach my students that governments tax the behaviors they want to discourage but provide incentives for the behaviors they want to encourage. For this reason, states tax alcohol, raising the price on something that, in excess, hurts the general public.

Why then, do we want to tax graduate education? If anything, we should do more to incentivize talented individuals to attend graduate school, struggle through learning difficult research methods and apply those methods to the real world.

Graduate students do important work. For the most part, we don’t go to graduate school to increase our earning potential. We go because we care deeply about answering questions and solving problems of all sorts. Students don’t research cancer for the money; they research cancer to find a cure. They don’t study psychology simply because the subject interests them; they do it to understand and help prevent criminal behavior. Taxing tuition waivers doesn’t just make our research harder; it makes it all but impossible.

This holiday season, I am thankful that members of the Senate Finance Committee decided not to include the graduate student tax in their plan for tax reform. When it comes time for reconciliation with the House bill, I am hopeful that the committee will continue to stand up for students—and America’s higher education system as a whole.