The Forum


Stephen Joel Trachtenberg is president emeritus and a University Professor of Public Service.

I was a guest on the nationally syndicated public radio program “The Diane Rehm Show” on Tuesday. I was one of five in a conversation about how fraternities and sororities fit into the college experience today, their evolving roles and ongoing challenges.

In the course of a robust discussion, we covered the social value for students of Greek life, community service provided by Greek life members, the allegiance these students often feel toward their alma maters, the perceived elitism of the system and several other facets of campus involvement.

The dominant topics of the show, and rightly so, were (a) the concerns around the abuse of alcohol and drugs by men and women, and (b) sexual assaults against women and some men and how this is handled on campus.

I’m glad I have an opportunity to extend the issues discussed.

First, I am terribly sorry any observations of mine have been construed to mean anything other than full support for the victims of sexual assault or rape. As a man, I realize it is unlikely I fully understand what it is like to be a woman faced with such a threat or the victim of such actions. As a caring adult, however, I do understand the responsibility we all share for the actions of our friends and classmates.

Rape and sexual assault are terrible things and should not be tolerated anywhere, on or off campus. Those acts are criminal, illegal and reprehensible.

We need to continue the broader conversation in our country, including on college campuses, about the perceived power and entitlement too many men feel toward women. This includes, foremost, physical acts against women, but also includes the use of language and social actions. Respect is the entitlement we should all strive for.

Our community should not and does not tolerate physical and social abuses. Friends must watch out for friends, male and female, who have a tendency to over-indulge. In our world, equality of the sexes comes with rights and responsibilities: No man has the right to abuse a woman. No one should ever be a victim of illegal behavior by another.

Campus life comes with a social contract. We are each accountable for our own behavior, and also collectively share responsibility for acts by those people with whom we socialize or share a dorm room, fraternity or sorority house. A high campus priority is the elimination of a climate of silence that in the past has condoned assault.

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Laura Zillman is the vice president of Students Against Sexual Assault.

“No offense, but…”

“Not to be racist, but…”

Spoiler alert: Whatever comes next probably will be offensive or racist.

“Without making the victims responsible for what happens…”

So said former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, during a Tuesday interview on The Diane Rehm Show. What followed seemed to indicate that Trachtenberg sees sexual violence (or “misconduct,” as he lightly puts it) as the fault of survivors, not perpetrators.

Much of the segment is problematic, and not only on Trachtenberg’s part. One participant even suggests that colleges today have “a male problem” due to enrolling higher numbers of female students. But it is Trachtenberg’s comments that are the most upsetting.

“One of the groups that have to be trained not to drink in excess are women. They need to be in a position to punch the guys in the nose if they misbehave,” Trachtenberg said. “There are women who drink too much. And we need to educate our daughters and our children on that.”

When called out by his fellow panelists, Trachtenberg backtracked and said that he “didn’t anticipate being taken quite so literally.”

As the vice president of Students Against Sexual Assault – not to mention a member of the GW community – who sees rape culture and victim-blaming perpetuated with both words and actions on a regular basis, I am not exactly sympathetic to his shock.

The year is 2014, for those of you keeping track. I am disappointed and furious that people, especially in positions of power, continue to perpetuate the notion that sexual violence is in any way up to survivors to prevent.

Sobriety does not prevent sexual violence. Being able-bodied enough to fight an assailant, or even choosing to fight, does not prevent sexual violence. Suggesting otherwise implies that an “untrained” survivor of sexual violence is partially responsible for preventing it in the first place. Sexual violence is caused by perpetrators, never by survivors or their actions. Survivors should never need to “do their best” to prevent experiencing violence.

Trachtenberg later attempted further damage control, telling The Hatchet that a woman “should understand her limits because she will be less likely to be unable to fight off somebody who is attacking her.” The mental or physical state of a survivor is never an excuse to commit violence against him or her.

Statistically, about one in five college women will experience sexual violence during their undergraduate years. Being made to feel responsible for that violence, by people in power at the very university meant to protect them, is despicable. Trachtenberg led GW for nineteen years, but has shown himself to be anything but an advocate for students and survivors.

I call upon Trachtenberg to apologize for his words. I call upon the GW administration to publicly condemn Trachtenberg’s remarks, and make it clear that they are not supported. I join peers, professors and alumni in formally petitioning for these actions.

The ongoing administrative silence tells survivors and the GW community at large that any promise of survivor advocacy is empty at best – and an outright lie at worst.

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Justin Peligri, a senior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet senior columnist.

Chances are, if you have a Facebook account, you’re more than familiar with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

Everyone from your little cousin to your fraternity brother has videotaped themselves dumping a bucket of ice water on their heads to raise money for ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Even university bigwigs, including the presidents of the University of Connecticut and Eastern Kentucky University, have accepted the challenge. Maybe you’ve participated yourself.

But there’s one higher education leader who has so far avoided what some consider an act of public embarrassment: University President Steven Knapp.

Knapp has earned a reputation for ambitious leadership over his seven-year tenure. He has overseen massive construction projects, looked to strengthen GW’s academic and research stature and steered a $1 billion fundraising campaign.

But unlike his predecessor, a larger-than-life, charismatic leader always eager to give advice and trade views, some have criticized Knapp for largely keeping students at arm’s length. He hasn’t done much to open up to students beyond holding limited office hours. If you’re lucky, you might see him walking his dog around campus and get a quick nod from him.

Of course, you’ll remember when Knapp appeared in a slightly awkward video to announce the name of GW’s new residence hall. But if he genuinely wants to connect with students, there’s another step he could take.

President Knapp, now is your chance: Participate in the ice bucket challenge. Doing so will give you the opportunity to raise awareness for an important cause while making yourself seem more accessible to students at the same time. I haven’t heard of anyone officially challenging Knapp yet, but surely his turn is coming soon, and when it does, I implore him to accept it.

Granted, the ALS challenge has come with a fair amount of criticism, with some arguing we shouldn’t consider publicity stunts that go viral online the moral equivalent to actual charity efforts like donating large sums of money and spending time volunteering for underserved causes. But it turns out this social media sensation has prompted more than $31 million in donations toward ALS treatment research and patient care, justifying its somewhat superficial Facebook popularity.

It’s the perfect opportunity for Knapp to become a friendlier face to incoming students as a new semester begins.

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Michael Wenger is an adjunct professor of sociology and a senior fellow at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a research institution that concentrates on race issues.

Michael Brown, the young black man shot and killed Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo., is yet another on the long list of unarmed black men – including two others in the past month and a half – who have suffered similar fates at the hands of law enforcement.

Since mid-July, we’ve seen the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island by a police officer’s chokehold and the fatal shooting of Ezell Ford by two Los Angeles Police Department officers. This country has a long history of such events, going back to slavery and the thousands of lynchings during the Jim Crow era.

Yet, amid the outrage over the Brown killing, we must not lose focus of the bigger picture. Since the founding of our nation, society has displayed a deeply entrenched belief in a racial hierarchy. This hierarchy assumes the superiority of white Americans and devalues the lives of non-white Americans.

Despite popular opinion, those racial beliefs have not been erased by the emancipation of enslaved people, by the Civil Rights Movement or by the election of a president with African ancestry. Until the hierarchy has been dismantled, we will continue to witness such killings.

This racial hierarchy manifests itself in both conscious and unconscious ways. Consciously, it caused the brutal system of slavery and the era of Jim Crow racism that followed emancipation, as well as the purposeful exclusion of African Americans from Social Security and the GI Bill. Additionally, the enactment of government policies, both written and unwritten, has institutionalized residential segregation and resulted in the mass incarceration of young men of color.

The mitigation of some of these conscious manifestations has not ended the embedded and often subconscious belief in a racial hierarchy. For example, research and experience clearly show that school discipline is significantly harsher for students of color, hiring practices still substantially favor white men and “shooter bias” severely endangers black people.

Scholars have written extensively in recent years about implicit racial bias and the significant role it plays in these outcomes. Further, the Implicit Association Test, available online, demonstrates that even anti-racist activists can carry subconscious racial biases that affect their behaviors.

These biases are exacerbated by a range of institutional policies and practices: The disproportionate picturing on television newscasts of black people arrested for crimes compared to white people arrested for similar crimes, the continued disregard in American history and literature curricula for the contributions of non-whites to the building of this country and racial profiling that leads to the disproportionate engagement of black people with the criminal justice system.

Despite these setbacks, we have clearly made progress over the past 50 years – though the loved ones of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Farrell, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Sean Bell and countless other victims might disagree.

Until we become fully aware of and deeply committed to undoing the embedded belief in a racial hierarchy that infects us all, there inevitably will be more Michael Browns.

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Peter Konwerski is the Dean of Student Affairs.

Peter Konwerski is a triple alumnus, a professorial lecturer and the Dean of Student Affairs.

Peter Konwerski is a triple alumnus, a professorial lecturer in the Human Services and Social Justice program and the Dean of Student Affairs.

As I reflect on some of the national and global issues that arose this summer – whether in Ferguson, Mo. or in Ukraine, the Middle East or Africa – I’m struck by the need to have capable citizen leaders at the ready to engage with, respond to and react to the complex problems we face in our world today.

Fortunately, at GW, that’s our business: producing effective, well-informed and educated citizen leaders. As we head back to school this new academic year, our campuses are brimming with excitement for learning. Classroom learning is best when combined with real-world insights culled from experience beyond the classroom: knowledge in action.

We have rich diversity in our classrooms. Students span the entire political spectrum, and our vast international community includes students who may have experienced first-hand the complex conflicts that appear in the news. As a result, not only is it imperative for us to embrace an educational environment that is open to constructive dialogue, but we must also demonstrate care and compassion. On any given day, incidents across the globe have the potential to directly affect at least one of the members of our University community, whether it’s a student, parent, alumnus, alumna, faculty member or staff member.

While the GW educational experience provides our students with tools to be effective citizen leaders, much of their learning also comes from outside the confines of our campuses – again, knowledge in action. Given the broad reach of our students living, working, serving, researching and interning around the world, we truly are a global community that sets no limits to the creation and acquisition of knowledge.

While we aim to cultivate a community of informed scholars, our responsibility to nurture a safe space for knowledge creation and acquisition is derived from our namesake’s simple credo: “Knowledge is, in every country, the surest basis of public happiness.” That spirit of an educated, engaged citizenry is something we take to heart in our University’s strategic plan.

As a nation founded on principles of open debate and civil discourse, it is also our responsibility as the community that bears George Washington’s name – and the institution bequeathed with his legacy of tolerance – to continue to fight for the free flow of ideas and easy and open exchange of information across all platforms.

I am proud to work in, and be a graduate of, such a community of scholars, and hope that through our work with and service to others, we are continuing to honor Washington’s legacy. Openness and tolerance are so critical to success in our society today. Both the voice of the oppressed and the speech of the political leader need to have a place at our University. Both make this a special place to practice knowledge in action and to live and learn.

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Kinjo Kiema, a sophomore majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet columnist.

When I visited GW for the first time, the busy and competitive atmosphere was one of the reasons I chose to enroll. I wanted a pre-professional environment that would prepare me for the cutthroat media industry, and I knew this was the school for me.

Many choose GW for this environment in the hopes that, combined with our often-touted location, they’ll emerge in four years well-prepared for a similarly stimulating career.

But others lament the atmosphere at upper-tier universities like GW. William Deresiewicz, a former Yale professor, argues in a New Republic piece, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League: The nation’s top schools are turning our kids into zombies,” that a university should not just serve as a training ground for a lucrative career. He writes that “the first thing college is for is to teach you how to think.”

Of course, development of critical thinking skills should be a key part of higher education. This process does not, however, diminish the importance of career preparation.

The romanticized notion of college as four years of “learning how to think” is idealistic, almost naive. Deresiewicz says that in his ideal education system, college is financially feasible for all who wish to attend, while the quality of education is as good at public universities as in the Ivy League and at other private universities.

But we aren’t anywhere near this academic utopia yet. Amid soaring costs at both private and public institutions, it’s difficult to see college outside of the world of career preparation.

More than half of GW’s class of 2012 graduated with some form of debt, and individual students left campus owing an average of $33,398 each. When you consider these realities, “learning to think” is secondary to landing a job that will allow you to pay back those loans.

The author pessimistically describes college applications as the process in which you selected “the most prestigious place that let you in; up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth – ‘success.’”

What he doesn’t address is why applicants think this way in the first place. A college degree is still a worthwhile investment because graduates are proven to earn much more over their lifetimes compared to those who only graduate from high school. In a shaky job market, students select the school they think will give them the best chance at securing a good salary.

It’s reassuring that a school like GW emphasizes career services as well as academics – with plans to put money from its fundraising campaign toward both.

Unfortunately, “learning to think” cannot be students’ only priority.

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Justin Peligri, a senior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet senior columnist.

It’s not every day that I agree with a star of the Republican Party.

But while former vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis. is known more for his work as chairman of the House budget committee than his education policy, he recently released an anti-poverty plan with proposals for higher education that should grab GW students’ attention.

First, let’s take a look at his ideas for Pell Grants. He wants to increase oversight of that system, which provides need-based grants to low-income students, to ensure federal money goes to the students who need it the most. Right now, the government disproportionately allocates grants to students who attend wealthier colleges, according to a report from the New America Foundation, which Ryan points out.

At GW, only about 14 percent of students were recipients of Pell Grant funding last year. That’s a significantly smaller number than most schools. In fact, the University landed in the bottom 5 percent of national Pell freshmen enrollment rates, according to a June report from the Education Trust. The list also includes schools like Northwestern and American universities.

GW’s hefty sticker price might deter many low-income students from submitting an application at all. Sure, living in the nation’s capital for four years is nice. But for many, it makes more sense to attend a cheaper school than to sign on to decades of debt.

Low-income students at GW could stand to benefit from Ryan’s plan. After all, many of us certainly need the support: The average student debt at GW is about $33,000, nearly $4,000 higher than the national average.

Students at Georgetown University, on the other hand, walk away with about $25,000 in debt on average. Georgetown is more selective and ranked higher than GW by most measures, but our debt levels are higher. Even though our default rate is low, about 1.5 percent, this should rightfully cause students concern.

GW’s financial aid pool increased by 3.6 percent this year, allowing the financial aid office to dole out about $233 million to undergraduate and graduate students. Still, the growth only matches the University’s annual tuition increase, which limits how much it can spread among students.

Clearly, there’s still more to be done here at GW to make sure that the University is proactively recruiting and retaining low-income students. But in the meantime, it’s reassuring to see some federal action on this nation-wide predicament. Making college affordable is an undertaking to which both the federal government and individual colleges must dedicate themselves.

A second tenet of Ryan’s higher education plan – capping the amount of loans that graduate students can borrow – also makes sense. Specifically, his goal is to institute a lifetime cap of $138,500 per graduate student, and a $57,000 cap for parents who are borrowing on behalf of their undergraduate children.

We’ve all heard the horror stories of college graduates who had to hold off buying cars, getting married or even having children because they were burdened by loan payments and the accompanying interest rates. The Project on Student Debt also reports that nearly 50 percent of GW graduates walk away owing money – and a sizeable portion of that debt is owed to the federal government.

Realistically speaking, Ryan’s plan is only a Band-Aid. In a perfect world, leaders in Congress would come to a consensus on lowering interest rates – which is what some would argue is the solution at the heart of this debate.

But until that happens, the plan is smart: Limit the amount of money graduate students can borrow so that they’re not stuck paying back their loans decades after graduation day. The government should make it its prerogative to ensure that the loans it gives out don’t come back to bite recipients.

The rest of Ryan’s poverty prevention plan leaves much to be desired. But if the congressman wants to jump on the “make college more affordable” train, traditionally populated by liberals, then I’m all for it.

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Sarah Blugis, a junior majoring in political communication, is The Hatchet’s contributing opinions editor.

The young adults of every generation think they know more than their parents, including millennials. In most cases, our parents have long since completed their education and have probably spent more time taking care of us than bettering their minds.

We, on the other hand, are in the middle of our academic careers at a university that is liberal and progressive enough to earn a protest from the Westboro Baptist Church. We do research, write theses and hear incredible lectures by diverse speakers.

We’ve got to be smarter than our parents, right?

On the surface level, it may seem that our parents and grandparents don’t have much to offer us while we’re home on summer break. But that isn’t necessarily the case.

If you’re anything like me, the thought of having any sort of political discussion with your family might make you cringe, or frustrate you before the conversation even begins. But we’ve all been there: Grandma or grandpa brings up race at the Thanksgiving table, dad voices his opinion about immigration in the car, mom doesn’t understand why girls are having so much sex these days.

While these conversations might be awkward, in my own experience, I’ve found that political debates among family can be beneficial – no matter where you fall on the political spectrum.

As summer begins to wind down and many of us won’t see our families until Thanksgiving, it’s a good time to have these debates and learn from them.

I grew up in a conservative Republican household – not uncommon for my hometown in rural Pennsylvania. I carried my parents’ party ideology with me into my teenage years, which is consistent with research that tells us our parents’ political beliefs have an influence on our own.

But once I came to GW, I started to see the world differently. Like most young adults, I heard plenty of new opinions from unique perspectives, a stark change from what my parents had said my whole life. I opened up to some new ideas, started solidifying my own opinions and decided it was OK that I didn’t agree with my parents on some of the issues anymore.

Now every winter, spring, and summer break has been all about arguing with my mom and dad at the dinner table.

Even though they can get quite heated – I’ve stormed out of the room on more than one occasion – my dad doesn’t like calling the debates “arguments.” He calls them “discussions,” and when all is said and done, he tells me he always learns from them.

Talking about political issues with family is complicated, and while the goal is almost always to change their minds, open their eyes or make them understand, that likely won’t happen. We think we should help them by making them smarter, or enlightening them.

But they’re really helping us. For those of us pursuing politics, they’re making us stronger. Talking to them can cement our opinions, bolster our arguments and give us great practice.

Plus, on campus, we tend to surround ourselves with people who have opinions similar to our own. It’s more comfortable that way. But going back and forth with family can restore our perspective, and remind us that there are people in the world who disagree with us – and always will.

In reality, we aren’t smarter than our parents. We’re just different, which is why we argue. If nothing else, passionate discussions are worth it for the rare moments when mom or dad says, “You’re right. I never thought about it that way.”

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Robert Eisen is a professor of religion and Judaic studies, and chair of the religion department.

There is no shortage of opinion on the recent hostilities between Israel and Gaza. Consult any article on the conflict in a major news outlet online, and you will find it accompanied by an endless string of comments from readers voicing strong views.

Yet, these comments exhibit a disturbing pattern one always sees in discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The vast majority of opinions are firmly on one side or the other. They tend to focus on the atrocities that the other side has committed, and they usually deal with recent events to prove their point.

Thus, in response to the latest flare-up, those who support the Palestinian side will talk only about the loss of civilian life in Gaza from Israeli air-strikes, while those on the Israeli side will focus only on what it’s like to live under incessant rocket fire.

What is true about these armchair critics is true about the protagonists themselves. The debates between Israelis and Palestinians are much the same.

What is lost in these bitter exchanges is what the conflict is really about. It’s about two peoples who claim the same land on the basis of two very different national narratives. These narratives cannot be easily summarized here, but suffice it to say that each one is complex, makes selective use of history and leaves no room for the narrative of the other side.

The discussion should really be about these narratives. There will never be peace unless both sides make a genuine attempt to educate themselves about and understand each other’s story – and that is hard work. One must study the history of the conflict, how religion has played a role in it and the social psychology that underlies it, to name just a few issues.

What I’m saying may seem painfully obvious. But, remarkably, it’s not. The arguments online are proof of that. Ignorance abounds. Few seem interested in learning about the complex narratives that lie behind the conflict, but only in pointing fingers about the latest atrocity that the other side has committed.

And amazingly enough, the politicians attempting to make peace have made the same error. In my mind, one of the major reasons that the Oslo Accords failed in the 1990s is that both sides agreed the negotiations would not include discussion of historical issues. Hence, no attempt was made to grapple with the two narratives. A similar attitude has characterized negotiations between the two sides ever since.

Students at GW have an opportunity to do better. If you really want to understand the conflict, study the two narratives in all their facets. You will discover just how complex the conflict is, that it is very difficult to assign blame solely to one side and that much is being missed not just by the commentators but by the politicians who are supposed to be making peace.

And armed with this knowledge, you may even get your own chance to solve the conflict. It is likely to be with us for years to come.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014 2:20 p.m.

Op-ed: Why GW needs an agriculture department

University Yard offers some of the few patches of green on the Foggy Bottom Campus. File Photo by Zach Montellaro | Hatchet Staff Photographer

University Yard offers some of the few patches of green on the Foggy Bottom Campus. File Photo by Zach Montellaro | Hatchet Staff Photographer

Joseph Nelson, a junior majoring in economics, is the founder of Cultiviral LLC, a web-based platform for professionals in agriculture.

Given that the Foggy Bottom Campus “quad” consists of bricks imprinted with the names of alumni instead of an expanse of grass, agriculture is likely not a pressing issue in the minds of many GW students.

Although the University has an urban campus, and is proud of it, it needs to make a more substantial investment in educating students about the factors and implications of agricultural trends. That effort should come in the form of specialized classes that give students the tools they need to solve the world’s agriculture-related problems.

Often, people dismiss food production, distribution, and farming as antiquated and even irrelevant, yet agriculture is intrinsically tied to every facet of our lives.

The challenges that come with a growing world population are grave. By 2050, the global population is estimated to reach 9.6 billion, requiring a 50 percent increase in agricultural output, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. Furthermore, at least 40 percent of that growth will take place in places where food scarcity is already pervasive: developing Africa and Southeast Asia.

It’s easy for those in the U.S. – consuming an average of almost 2,700 calories per day – to overlook the importance of increasing agricultural output. But as we dispose one-third of our excess food, 842 million people around the world are undernourished.

These issues directly affect the subjects that many of us are studying. The Elliott School of International Affairs is proud to tout a nationally competitive master’s program in international development, yet it offers few courses that focus on the intersection of food security and economic growth.

Similarly, GW’s economics department has important courses like environmental economics but not agricultural economics. Economic development is a multifaceted issue, which means its solutions should be as well.

University President Steven Knapp has committed to long-term food sustainability. Hatchet File Photo

University President Steven Knapp has committed to long-term food sustainability. Hatchet File Photo

Fortunately, GW is taking steps in the right direction. It recently introduced a sustainability minor, which addresses issues at local, regional and global levels. The University Honors Program offers a course that features lectures by chef José Andrés and, at the very least, offers an introduction to agricultural problems.

GW’s Planet Forward hosts an annual convention focused on sustainable growth, which last year included a panel with agricultural scientists discussing how genetically modified foods can feed a growing world.

Additionally, GW’s Institute of Sustainability just appointed former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Kathleen Merrigan, as its director. University President Steven Knapp even made a commitment to the Real Food Challenge, an effort aimed at long-term food sustainability. His wife, Diane Knapp, is the chair of the GW Urban Food Task Force.

But in the long run, these gains are insufficient. While we should applaud extracurricular opportunities and University-wide initiatives, true devotion to teaching students how to solve the world’s agricultural problems needs to manifest itself in the classroom. We should contribute to educating a generation of students in agriculture.

To quote my friend Dan Reed, director of Planet Forward, “Just because we’re not a land-grant agricultural university doesn’t mean we can’t have the opportunities of one.”

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