Higher Education News

Articles overstate millennials' loss of interest in going to college

Inside Higher Ed - News - August 12, 2019 - 5:00pm

The headline is the sort that could send a chill down the spine of college and university administrators. "Half of Young Americans Say College Is No Longer Necessary," blared The New York Post, slightly shortening the title of a Marketwatch article that was also picked up by numerous newspapers and radio stations around the country.

The article summarized a Harris survey of more than 3,000 Americans about college-going, supported by TD Ameritrade, the brokerage firm.

Trouble is, that's not at all what the survey found.

Don't get us wrong: the survey's true results suggest some real doubts on the part of former, current and prospective students (and parents) about the value of higher education, reflecting other signs of public doubts.

Most of the concerns are financial.

  • "Young" millennials (which Harris pegged at those aged 22 to 28) say they are paying two-thirds of the costs of their college education.
  • Forty-six percent said they are paying for their educations with student loans, up seven percentage points from 2017.
  • About a third of millennials say they expect to still be paying off their student debt into their 40s (and 15 percent expect to be doing so after hitting the half-century mark).
  • Roughly three-quarters of millennials say they either chose (or would choose) a less expensive college to avoid debt.
  • Between one and two in five millennials say they have delayed a significant milestone of growing up -- moving out of their parents' home (31 percent), buying a home (47 percent), having children (21 percent), saving for retirement (40 percent) -- because of student debt.

A full quarter of millennials, 26 percent, said they had considered "delaying college due to the expense of paying for it," and nearly a third said they had considered attending a community college instead of pursuing a four-year degree (31 percent) or getting an associate degree instead of a bachelor's degree (30 percent).

And in the closest parallel to the articles' headline, 15 percent of young millennials said they did not expect to attend college or trade school (another 4 percent said they weren't sure, while the rest, 81 percent, said they expected to go).

It was another finding that appears to have inspired the article's headline writer, though. Just under half of millennials, 49 percent, said their degree was "very or somewhat unimportant" in getting them their current job. Fifty-one percent said the degree was very or somewhat important.

"'No longer necessary' refers to the fact that half of young Americans say their degree is not relevant to their job," James Wellemeyer, who wrote the Marketwatch article, said in a direct message on Twitter.

But asked what advice they might give to their "18-year-old self" regarding college, 19 percent recommended working to earn money while in college, and 8 percent said to "take the bare minimum of student loans."

The percentage who said their advice would be "don't go to college"? Five percent.

(Note: Marketwatch updated the headline on its article after Inside Higher Ed inquired about it. The New York Post headline stands.)

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Cal State's faculty union suddenly disaffiliates with the state's largest K-12 teachers union

Inside Higher Ed - News - August 12, 2019 - 5:00pm

The California Faculty Association, a massive union representing professors on and off the tenure track, librarians, counselors, and coaches across the California State University system, has quietly disaffiliated from the California Teachers Association and the National Education Association.

CFA had been affiliated with California’s K-12 faculty union for decades.

It’s unclear exactly what prompted the break. A CFA spokesperson said via email that the union disaffiliated with CTA and NEA after “lengthy consideration and upon a vote by CFA’s Board of Directors.”

CFA “continues to support public K-12 teachers in California and nationwide,” the spokesperson said, “and will fight alongside them for educational justice. We remain deeply committed to working families and strongly affiliated with organizations that protect and defend all public education; our advocacy on behalf of students, educators, and our communities continues.”

William Herbert, executive director of the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at the City University of New York’s Hunter College, said that whatever happened in California, it’s not part of a national trend of faculty unions parting ways with K-12 teacher unions.

“In fact, we are seeing unions working together more,” Herbert said, citing organizing by the American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors at the University of New Mexico as one example.

CTA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some commentators have attributed the rift, in part, to a contentious leadership election earlier this year. As CTA vice president, Theresa Montaño, a professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at CSU's Northridge campus, was expected to be elected its new president. But CTA’s then president, Eric Heins, endorsed her opponent, Toby Boyd. Both men have K-12 teaching backgrounds.

Montaño, who worked as a middle and high school teacher prior to becoming a professor, did not respond to a request for comment.

Writing for the LA School Report, columnist Mike Antonucci wrote that “Certainly CTA will lament the loss of membership, but it may gain some benefit from not having to deal with issues unique to the California State University system anymore. CFA members might not notice any difference at all, which isn’t a good thing for CTA.”

The break was first reported by EdSource. The California-based news site said that CTA has added new members this year, despite 2018’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling against mandatory agency fees for public sector unions in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31. So CTA says that its 22,000 new members will offset the approximately 19,000 CSU-based members who belonged to both the teachers' and faculty associations, according to EdSource. CTA says its overall membership remains at around 325,000.

California’s Community College Association remains affiliated with the CTA.

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Democratic contenders push moderate debt relief plans in response to Warren, Sanders

Inside Higher Ed - News - August 9, 2019 - 5:00pm

Campaign proposals for broad loan forgiveness from Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have helped make student debt a top issue in the Democratic presidential primary race.

It’s also made for as clear a dividing line as any issue between Warren and Sanders and their more moderate rivals for the 2020 nomination. Primary rivals have argued the Warren and Sanders plans are either unrealistic or unfair.

Other campaigns, though, have begun to roll out more narrow debt relief plans, including that of South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, who argued at a Detroit primary debate last week that debt relief should begin with borrowers who attended for-profit colleges “that took advantage of people.” California senator Kamala Harris also released her own debt relief proposal last month targeting business owners in disadvantaged communities.

Other candidates, meanwhile, have called for simplifying loan repayment or allowing borrowers to refinance. And former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro in May called for loan forgiveness for borrowers who make long-term use of federal safety net programs. Whereas Sanders and Warren have split over how much automatic debt relief to offer borrowers -- the Warren plan would cap forgiveness at $50,000 and offer limited relief to borrowers with incomes six figures or higher -- their rivals are proposing a number of tweaks to the current system.

The variety of the proposals suggests there isn’t a moderate consensus yet on what to do about debt relief for current student borrowers, said Ben Miller, vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress.

“What the middle ground proposal is is still unknown,” he said.

Offering debt relief to for-profit college students hasn’t generated the same buzz as broad loan forgiveness. And Harris’s plan was widely lampooned on social media for what critics saw as its needless complexity. Some observers say the proposals illustrate the challenges with crafting a plan that’s both targeted to borrowers who need help the most and is straightforward to understand.

More Targeted Plans Mean More Complications

In terms of the design of debt relief proposals, the Sanders plan would be easiest to carry out, said Matt Chingos, director of the Urban Institute’s Center on Education Data and Policy.

“Congress could pass a one-sentence law saying, ‘We forgive all the debt,’” he said. “Politically, it’s obviously a different story.”

The Buttigieg and Harris proposals are targeted to provide relief to specific kinds of borrowers. A smaller debt relief plan might be easier to pass through Congress, Chingos said. But offering a plan with more narrow policy goals raises more questions about how those proposals would be crafted.

So far, both campaigns have been light on details. Neither has produced projections of how many borrowers would benefit or the cost of their debt relief programs.

Buttigieg wants to cancel the debt of borrowers who attended “low-quality” programs that failed the federal gainful-employment rule -- a regulation that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos officially repealed in June. Although he specifically cited for-profit colleges at the Democratic debate, the proposal released on his campaign website suggests borrowers who attended any program that failed the gainful-employment ratings would qualify.

Harris is proposing to cancel up to $20,000 in debt for Pell Grant recipients who open a business in a disadvantaged community and operate it for at least three years.

Neither was released as part of the respective campaigns' higher ed agendas. Instead, they were included in broader plans to address racial equity. Although full details aren't available about the plans, many borrowers who would benefit would likely be students of color.

The challenge for such highly targeted plans, Chingos said, is they have to define what specifically would meet each qualification -- for example, what counts as a business or as a disadvantaged community.

Since the fall of 2017, roughly 99 percent of applicants have been rejected for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, illustrating the downsides of a highly targeted debt relief program with multiple restrictions on who qualifies.

Although the Education Department hasn’t released new gainful-employment data since 2017, the Buttigieg proposal could be more straightforward to implement, Chingos said, because the federal government already has tax returns for borrowers. The federal government has also expanded the data it collects on program outcomes through the College Scorecard.

Chingos said whatever the amount of debt forgiveness a proposal offers, the government should be able to provide debt forgiveness using its own data.

“You don’t want to have a bunch of forms and paperwork, because that advantages people who know about the program and know how to navigate the process,” he said.

Are Moderate Proposals More Feasible?

Marshall Steinbaum, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Utah and a proponent of universal debt cancellation, said the more moderate debt relief plans aren’t actually more realistic. Rather, he said, they do less to challenge the assumption of policy makers that student debt is “good” debt.

“These targeted plans are predicated on picking out the most meritorious, or the most needy, or the most worthy debtors and canceling their debt, while keeping it in place for everyone else,” he said. “It’s impossible to decide who is the most deserving victim. The process of elites choosing between the deserving and undeserving is alienating as a political proposition.”

Reid Setzer, director of government affairs at the Education Trust, said the Harris and Buttigieg plans "are not quite expansive enough to tackle the extent of the problem."

Ed Trust has supported the Warren debt cancellation proposal although the group has also said the plan should take account of household wealth in addition to income. 

There’s clearly pressure on presidential primary candidates to propose solutions for student debt. But Tamara Hiler, deputy director of education at the think tank Third Way, said there is an opportunity for candidates to offer proposals that direct relief to borrowers who need it the most without running into the pitfalls of Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

During the 2016 presidential primary campaign, Hillary Clinton famously proposed, like Harris, to offer student debt relief to entrepreneurs. One proposal would have allowed start-up founders with federal student loans to defer payments for three years without accruing interest. Another would have forgiven up to $17,500 for borrowers who started a business in a “distressed” community.

Not only was that plan overly complicated, Hiler said, “it also wasn’t necessarily targeted at people who needed debt forgiveness or people who needed resources the most.”

Harris and Buttigieg, she said, should get credit for thinking about who would most benefit from loan forgiveness.

“There would be implementation challenges whether you’re talking about the Warren plan, the Sanders plan or any of these more targeted plans,” Hiler said. “They are really trying to make sure the limited taxpayer funds going into these programs would be targeting students who need them the most.”

The variety of the approaches in candidates’ debt relief plans show how they understand the problem of student debt differently, Miller said. If Sanders sees student debt as an economic justice issue and Warren sees it as a racial equity issue, Buttigieg sees debt working poorly for certain kinds of borrowers.

“You’re seeing different articulations of where candidates think the problem lies,” Miller said. “People can debate which one is the most accurate.”

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Dispute over minority affairs officers leads to collapse of student government

Inside Higher Ed - News - August 9, 2019 - 5:00pm

Student government representatives often butt heads with one another and especially with their institution’s administration, but at Metropolitan State University, in St. Paul, Minn., this dynamic led to the shutdown of the university’s Student Senate for more than seven months.

As was first reported on by the Twin Cities Pioneer Press, the leadership of the Student Senate found itself at odds with the university’s administration last August over a number of vacancies within the administration for positions that traditionally are meant to help serve minority students better. However, criticism of the administration grew into a polarizing divide among the students and eventually led to the end of the Student Senate.

Tina Martinez, who served as president of the Student Senate during the previous academic year, said there had always been tension and conflict within the organization. However, the debate over the minority services vacancies amplified the conflicts. Martinez said there were several resignations and a retirement within the student services area.

“Not everyone was as concerned -- but enough of us were concerned to say, ‘What’s happening?’ ” Martinez said. “[The administration] told us that they would get these positions refilled within the next month or two.”

Martinez said the vacant positions included the Native American student services coordinator, the Latinx and undocumented services coordinator, and a director of multicultural services, among others within student services. The administration promised Martinez and her fellow student leaders the positions would be filled by the end of last September, she said. When the positions remained unfilled by that point, tensions flared.

“There was a divide between the senate,” Martinez said. “It came to whether you believe that we need these services or whether you don’t. A lot of the minority students were fighting for these, talking about how these services were important to students. This became a heated conversation because, the way I see it, the administration didn’t like that we were questioning them.”

At an October meeting of the Student Senate, some students got into heated arguments with one another and some shouted at administration members. The administration then put the senate on a “pause,” asking them not to meet until some of the problems were remediated, Metropolitan State president Ginny Arthur said.

“The October meeting was very heated,” Arthur said. “We wanted to evaluate the situation, but unfortunately despite many efforts, [we couldn't] engage with three students and get them to come to the table to work on the interpersonal relationships among the student senators.”

The three students Arthur referred to were Martinez and two of her counterparts within the senate who felt the administration had not done all they could to address concerns. Arthur said that the university called in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system’s director for student development, Paul Shepherd, in response to student requests for an impartial look at the situation.

However, resolutions were not met, and with the damage done, the Student Senate didn’t meet again for the rest of the semester. Jessica Maistrovich, a member of the Student Senate who was not one of the three opposing the administration, said the organization’s leadership was to blame for its collapse. Maistrovich said the leadership refused to hold meetings after not being satisfied by the administration’s response and the senate was unable to hold new elections for the following year.

“There were a few students who managed, because they were in a position of power, to keep Student Senate deadlocked and not move forward or gain new members,” Maistrovich said. “They just locked us in place, and we couldn’t do anything.”

Maistrovich, who was plainly on the side of the administration, said that “bad behavior” at the October meeting was the real catalyst for trouble in the situation. Some had yelled at members of the administration during the meeting, she said.

When asked why the administration was so deeply involved with the internal politics of the organization, Arthur said the desire to maintain student representation is what led to the administration’s intervention.

“My concern is that there are nearly 11,000 students at Metropolitan and to ensure that they have representation,” Arthur said. “The level of interpersonal conflict that was going on within the senators certainly made me concerned.”

However, Maistrovich and other students are forming a new student organization with the blessing of the administration and plan to hold elections early in the new semester. Martinez and those who were dissatisfied with the university’s response have said they likely won’t be joining it.

“How I see it is that the administration thinks they can do whatever they want, but we can’t simply ask questions without being ‘disrespectful,’ ” Martinez said.

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New Michigan in-state tuition requirements to help undocumented, DACA students

Inside Higher Ed - News - August 9, 2019 - 5:00pm

In a move expected to largely benefit undocumented immigrants, the University of Michigan has revised its requirements for students to qualify for in-state tuition.

But some students say the change, which extends the time frame in which they must enroll at the university after graduating from high school, comes too late. They contend that the new requirement won’t help those who graduated high school several years ago -- before the time period allowed under the new policy -- and who may be stuck paying the higher tuition rate for students who don't live in the state. Because undocumented immigrants don't have legal residency in the U.S., some colleges categorize them as out-of-state students and charge them the higher tuition.

Estimated in-state tuition and fees at Michigan for the 2019-20 academic year is about $15,550 a year. It’s more than $51,000 a year for non-state residents.

Under the new policy, students can establish their residency in Michigan, and thus qualify for in-state tuition, by attending a middle school in the state for at least two years. They then must earn a GED or graduate from an in-state high school that they attended for at least three years.

Under previous rules established by the university's Board of Regents in 2013, students had to enroll at the university within 28 months to qualify for in-state tuition. The new policy, approved by the regents last month, extends the timeline for enrolling at Michigan to 40 months. The policy takes effect in the academic year beginning in fall 2020.

The previous rule, known as an “attendance pathway,” allowed students to establish residency by attending K-12 schools in Michigan. This was an attempt to help minority, nontraditional and other students who could not afford or attend college, for various reasons, soon after graduating from high school, by giving them a “more flexible pathway” to securing in-state tuition.

For many undocumented immigrants, 28 months was not long enough to scrape together the funds to finance their education. Many of these students come from poor families and work in low-paying jobs. Some of them participate in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, an initiative established by the Obama administration in 2012 that temporarily protects from deportation young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children and allows them to legally work in the U.S. Known informally as Dreamers, many of them are current or former college students.

Michigan provost Martin Philbert wrote in a memo to the Board of Regents that the change would help students who are not in the country legally, as well as American citizens who leave the state temporarily after high school.

“It further seeks to provide greater flexibility for the diversity of students who require more time to prepare for, seek and gain admission and enrollment,” Philbert wrote in the memo.

A university spokesman said Michigan does not track how many Dreamers are enrolled.

Michigan State University and Oakland University, two other prominent public institutions in the state, also have similar residency policies with a 40-month time frame for enrolling.

Low-income and first-generation students, as well as those belonging to other student populations, typically enroll at the university within a median of 28 to 44 months, Kedra Ishop, vice provost for enrollment management, said in a written statement.

“It’s not surprising that these students often need to take longer to finance and achieve their eventual successful application and enrollment,” Ishop said in her statement. “We need to make sure that we maintain reasonable access for those who need to stop along the way, for instance to work, but who continue to achieve and are great candidates for U-M.”

However, students must have graduated high school in 2017 or after, which is less than 40 months before fall 2020, to qualify for in-state tuition under the new policy. This means that students who graduated in 2016 or earlier are stuck paying the nonresidential rate for tuition, which is much higher than in-state.

Juan Muñoz-Ponce, a rising senior at the University of Michigan, is a DACA recipient who has lived in Michigan for 20 years. But despite his long residency in the state, he graduated high school in 2013, which means he doesn't qualify for the in-state rate. Muñoz-Ponce didn't enroll until summer 2018 because the community college he had attended had incorrectly advised him that most of his credits would transfer to Michigan -- they did not.

He is a member of Student Community of Progressive Empowerment, a group that advocates for undocumented students on campus and that pushed for the policy change.

Muñoz-Ponce said he wished the university's regents had considered other options. He pointed to the policy at Grand Valley State University, also located in Michigan, which gives students the in-state rate if they've graduated from high school, or a community college, within 28 months.

"I wish they had considered a more broad spectrum of students," he said of the Board of Regents.

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Growing Texas Tech’s K-12 pipeline

Inside Higher Ed - News - August 9, 2019 - 5:00pm

Texas Tech University is in an enviable position -- as college attendance is declining nationally and competition for students is intensifying, enrollment at the university is growing. It hit a record high in the fall of 2018 and is on track to reach 40,000 students by 2020.

But the university still needs to find new pools of potential students in order to keep growing. At other institutions, doing this might require expensive marketing campaigns. Not so at Texas Tech. Administrators at the public research university in Lubbock, Tex., won't have to spend a lot of money or look very far. A student pipeline has been hiding in plain sight -- an online K-12 school with thousands of students and founded by the university itself.

Texas Tech University K-12 was created in 1993 to help students whose needs were not being met by traditional school districts. It provides distance education courses to homeschooled children, students who've fallen behind in traditional school or who were bullied, child performers, military families, and adults who never completed high school. The school, which is accredited by the Texas Education Agency and charges tuition and fees, currently has a domestic enrollment of 1,865 full-time students and 6,139 part-time students.

Though created by Texas Tech, TTU K-12 operated independently from the university for many years, said Kathy Austin, the university's associate vice president for information technology.

“When we started the K-12 operation, it functioned like a little silo. It had its own faculty, its own staff, and over the years has reported through various different lines to the provost,” she said. “It didn’t get a lot of visibility -- very few in the cabinet had any idea what a gem we had.”

TTU K-12 is now part of the Texas Tech University eLearning and Academic Partnerships, a division of the Office of the Provost. It was a transition prompted by necessity, explained Austin. Throughout the ’90s and ’00s, TTU K-12 managed all of its own technology, but it “didn’t have the resources to do it right,” she said. Around 2012, the then executive director of TTU K-12 reached out to Texas Tech’s CIO for help. By 2014, the two parties had drawn up a formal agreement to work together -- sharing funds and resources.

Austin said enrollment at TTU K-12 has recently picked up because of the improved technology. But staff are preparing for another potential boost in enrollment related to recently adopted legislation that will give TTU K-12 access to state funding to cover tuition and fees for in-state students.

Increased State Support

Access to state funding represents a “huge change” for TTU K-12, said Justin Louder, associate vice provost of elearning and academic partnerships at Texas Tech. “We’ll be able to reach a whole new population of students. Before we were much more like a private school,” he said.

Louder isn’t anticipating thousands of new students overnight, but he said the school is preparing for expansion and the possibility of some additional accountability measures.

“It will take a little bit of time for everybody to get on board with this,” he said. “My guess is that we’ll see steady growth -- online education isn’t something that works for everybody.”

Giving TTU K-12 access to state funding is an “acknowledgment of the legitimacy of online learning,” said Austin. “The state is innovating, opening the door to other providers.”

TTU K-12 administrators didn’t push for access to the state funding, but they're excited about the opportunity it presents, said Louder. This policy picked up steam politically because of concern from state lawmakers that for-profit companies could start to dominate online K-12 education in Texas, he said. “They saw this as a way to provide another option.”

The University of Texas at Austin, which runs an online high school, will also be granted access to the state funding. Louder noted that the funding is new money that is not being taken away from public schools.

International Expansion

In addition to more in-state students, TTU K-12 plans to significantly expand its national and international enrollment, said Louder. The school currently has 1,980 full-time international students enrolled, many through partnerships in Brazil, Vietnam and China.

“We’re seeing a lot of growth in non-English-speaking countries,” said Louder. “A lot of students want to go to university in the U.S. or Europe and want an English-language education.”

He said the growth in international students at TTU K-12 has caught the attention of administrators at Texas Tech. The university is now working to streamline the admissions process for TTU K-12 students who choose to study at Texas Tech.

“We want to increase access to higher education, and we want the students at TTU K-12 to continue studying with us,” said Louder. “We’ve had some conversations with admissions about how to ease some of the hurdles. One thing we’re working on is a way for TTU K-12 high school graduates to gain automatic admission to the university.”

He hopes this process will be available to TTU K-12 students by fall 2020.

Cari Moye, high school principal of TTU K-12, said the students at TTU K-12 have a wide range of reasons for studying with the school, and not all of them will want to study at Texas Tech, or indeed go to college at all. That’s fine with the school, she said -- students won’t be pressured into making decisions that aren’t right for them. She added that the school is working to offer more college and career-readiness resources to students, including advising, special courses and career aptitude quizzes.

Just a small percentage of students who study at TTU K-12 now continue on to study at Texas Tech. The institution hopes to entice more to do so through scholarships, invitations to events on campus and increased exposure to the work of the university, said Austin.

“That’s a piece of the puzzle that we’re just starting to connect,” she said.

“I think there are two areas of real growth -- increasing the quality of our engagement with our community and extending the pipeline,” said Austin.

Making it easier for students to transition from TTU K-12 to the university might seem like an obvious move, but change at large institutions can sometimes be slow, she said.

“It takes the right catalyst to recognize the benefits of collaboration and the joining of disparate parts.”

Connecting K-12 and Higher Ed

Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said Texas Tech has always been “two steps ahead of everyone else” in connecting higher ed to the labor market, and it also could lead the way in connecting K-12 to higher ed.

Silos between K-12, higher ed and employers are gradually being broken down, he said. But the movement toward a connected education system is slow and uneven. Many higher education institutions have been reluctant to be judged by employment outcomes and earnings data, and there are few incentives for universities and colleges to reach back into K-12, he said.

For public institutions looking for new student pipelines, K-12 could be a fruitful source, said Carnevale. He noted, however, that it is unlikely that elite institutions will look to work with K-12 schools as they already have a strong pipeline of legacy admissions.

“Elite institutions don’t want to hook up with K-12,” he said. “Refusing kids is the coin of the realm in higher ed.”

By creating connections between K-12, higher ed and the labor market, researchers may be able to better understand why some students succeed and others don’t. Carnevale believes that collecting data on students throughout their education and career should be done “for equity’s sake.”

“We know that if you’re in school with high test scores and you come from the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, you have a 30 percent chance of graduating college and getting a decent job. Rich kids with the same test scores have a 70 percent chance,” said Carnevale.

“Everybody stumbles along the way, but the less advantaged kids don’t get up, either because they don’t have the parental support or resources -- that’s the reason we need to make these connections.”

A Research Opportunity

Austin believes Texas Tech has a unique opportunity to track students throughout their education. Collecting data on students from when they begin kindergarten all the way until they earn a Ph.D. presents a tremendous opportunity for educational research, she said.

Although TTU K-12 and the university already do sophisticated data modeling to predict student success, the institutions currently have little insight into how students are learning online. When a student opens a page in the institution’s current version of the learning management system, Blackboard Learn, instructors have little information about how the student is interacting with the page.

“We joke that students could open a page, go out for coffee and come back two hours later and we wouldn’t know,” said Austin. When Texas Tech completes its transition to Blackboard Ultra -- a revamped version of Blackboard Learn -- Austin is hopeful instructors and researchers will gain much more insight into whether students are posting threads in discussion forums, watching videos, listening to audio files, reviewing materials or taking quizzes.

“It’ll be organized in a way that we can analyze,” she said. “It’s going to allow us to ask specific questions about how students are learning. What behaviors in online learning courses predict strong or poor class performance? We haven’t been able to mine that very detailed behavioral data before.”

With enough data, it's possible Texas Tech could predict quite early whether children are likely to succeed in college, Austin said. But she is vehemently opposed to the concept of using data to channel children into particular career pathways and determining early on whether children have what it takes to go to college. Doing this would disadvantage children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who might struggle in school but have the same innate ability as wealthier classmates.

“The way you use the data is to provide resources -- to help students overcome anything that is limiting them,” she said.

Rachel Scherer, senior director of data and analytics for Blackboard, said knitting together the K-12 and higher ed experience is an “emerging area of interest across the education industry.” But she agreed with Austin that there “doesn’t seem to be any value” in using data to categorize children. Rather, she believes the data should be used to pinpoint the moment in time when students might need help.

Texas Tech has a “cool opportunity” to learn more about its students, said Scherer. “We’ve been measuring educational outcomes for a long time, but this idea of really understanding this student or this population over the duration of their education is unprecedented.”

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Plan put forward for accountability for Australian universities

Inside Higher Ed - News - August 9, 2019 - 5:00pm

Universities with poor outcomes could find themselves exchanging autonomy for extra teaching grants under a performance funding system being considered by Australia’s government.

Money left unallocated because universities have not met performance benchmarks would be given to them anyway under conditions negotiated between the Education Department and the universities in question.

The suggestion is among 18 recommendations from an expert panel headed by University of Wollongong vice chancellor Paul Wellings. Education minister Dan Tehan said the idea did not contradict the logic of a performance-based scheme.

“It enables government to say to that university, we would like you to lift your performance in this area,” Tehan told Times Higher Education. “The universities give up a tiny bit of autonomy where they’re not performing as well as they otherwise would be.”

Under the recommendations, universities would need to meet four separate performance thresholds to earn their full complements of additional funds from the Commonwealth Grant Scheme.

The measures include “adjusted” attrition rates -- the percentage of students who drop out or do not return to complete their courses the following year, excluding those who have transferred to other courses or institutions -- and the proportion of graduates who obtain full-time, part-time or casual jobs within specified time frames.

The other two measures are “equity” -- participation by indigenous, economically disadvantaged and regional students, with each of the three groups given equal weighting -- and student satisfaction with teaching quality.

Extra funds would be awarded separately for each of the four measures, with the performance-contingent component of teaching grants allowed to accumulate up to 7.5 percent of each university’s basic grant amount.

Tehan would not elaborate on whether the government would accept all of the panel’s recommendations, but he suggested that there would be a final decision by the end of August. “I must say the framework that has been presented is an excellent one,” he said.

Wellings said the sector had “broadly come alongside the proposals” after he and Tehan outlined the scheme to most of the country’s vice chancellors, who had congregated at his university.

“It leaves the possibility of expansion of the sector with student number growth, and it also leaves the possibility of a small pool of funding to allow each university to have a performance improvement process,” he said. “That is a very distinctive thing and one, to my knowledge, which has never been thought about elsewhere in the world.

“We’ve looked at the international framework, and we’ve built something which is special to Australia and which I believe will enhance the performance of the sector.”

He stressed the “contextualized” nature of the proposed scheme, whereby attrition and employment rates would be judged against each university’s historical performance rather than sectorwide thresholds.

“We’ve attempted to buffer out unintended consequences,” he said. “We’re pretty certain … the model is fair and feasible and can be operated safely by all universities, irrespective of the catchment of students or the subject mix.”

The report says contextualization elements in the scheme’s design will also mitigate perverse outcomes such as making the sector more uniform.

“The proposed model has very low implementation risk: it relates to a limited number of measures; its impact scales slowly over time; the total amount is unlikely to be distorting; and an incremental approach to funding allocation reduces the risk of shocks,” the report says.

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Categories: Higher Education News

UNC system president's corporate board memberships draw scrutiny after state ethics filings update

Inside Higher Ed - News - August 8, 2019 - 5:00pm

The chairman of the University of North Carolina system’s Board of Governors stood by its interim president, William L. Roper, Wednesday after a report that Roper hadn’t disclosed on state ethics forms his corporate board seats -- board seats at companies that have done business with the state and parts of the university system.

Roper’s positions on for-profit boards were public knowledge, according to the UNC Board of Governors chairman, Harry Smith. The interim president, who previously served as CEO of the UNC Health Care System, was authorized to keep serving on the corporate boards, Smith added.

“We have reviewed this matter and we are aware of no instance in which Dr. Roper ever involved himself in a decision that presented a conflict,” Smith said in a statement. “In fact, documents produced by the UNC Health Care System demonstrate that he was careful to avoid any conflicts.”

Nonetheless, the situation thrusts back into the spotlight an issue that has for decades been controversial among higher education leadership experts. Supporters of college and university leaders serving on corporate boards say the practice allows higher education executives to connect with different constituencies and make contacts for fundraising or research. Critics worry that paid for-profit board positions suck up presidents’ time and introduce potential conflicts of interest when presidents are board members at companies doing business with their institutions.

“There are presidents who make more on a corporate board than they do in university salary,” said James Finkelstein, professor emeritus of public policy at George Mason University, who has studied higher ed executives’ pay and service on corporate boards. “There is this potential for that relationship, even if it’s inadvertent, to be exploited to the benefit of the corporation.”

The case also brings renewed attention to UNC leadership, which has experienced high-profile turnover in the last year. Roper is president because the system’s former leader, Margaret Spellings, left in January after a tense relationship with the board. And Smith has been a polarizing leader.

Roper was CEO of the UNC Health Care System before becoming interim president of the UNC system in January. He remains on the UNC Health Care System Board of Directors.

He has been on the board of dialysis services company DaVita since the early 2000s. He has also held board seats at three companies in an acquisition chain: MedCo, which was purchased by Express Scripts, which was purchased by the insurer Cigna. Roper remains on the Cigna board.

He made at least $5.1 million for serving on the companies’ boards between 2010 and 2018, WBTV reported. But he did not disclose the fact that he held board seats at the companies on several statements of economic interest he filed with the state to cover the span from 2010 to 2018.

After WBTV contacted him as part of its investigation, Roper amended his state ethics forms, the station reported. But the station said amended forms listed the companies where he held board seats as having no business activity or no known business activity with the state, even though business relationships between the companies, the state and UNC entities are publicly documented.

Two DaVita clinics are listed for referrals on the UNC Kidney Center’s Website, and the UNC School of Medicine has noted DaVita’s support for kidney center research. MedCo and Express Scripts have managed pharmacy benefits for the state’s health plan, which would have covered UNC system employees including Roper, WBTV reported.

Roper issued a statement last week saying he has always disclosed his corporate ties, holdings and stock options to UNC Health Care, the UNC School of Medicine and the UNC system. He has always recused himself from matters that might cause a conflict of interest or the appearance of one, he said.

In an email to WBTV, Roper said he marked the companies where he held board seats as having no known business activity because he actively avoided getting information about such matters in the course of recusing himself. But the amended forms in question were submitted after a WBTV reporter sent an interview request referencing the business relationships in question.

Roper chairs the Cigna board’s compliance committee and serves on its executive and finance committees. The compliance committee “oversees the company’s key compliance and ethics programs, including compliance with the laws and regulations that apply to business operations, such as data privacy and U.S. federal and state healthcare program requirements,” according to the company’s most recent proxy statement.

At DaVita, Roper serves on the board’s audit committee, compliance committee and clinical performance committee.

The UNC system on Wednesday released a letter from the State Ethics Commission evaluating Roper’s statement of economic interest. The commission did not find an actual conflict of interest but found potential for a conflict of interest that does not prohibit Roper from serving, it said.

“Dr. Roper should exercise appropriate caution in the performance of his public duties should issues involving Cigna, Inc., DaVita, Inc. or any entities in which he owns financial interests come before the UNC University System or the UNC Health Care System for official action,” said the letter, signed by Mary Roerden of the State Ethics Commission and dated Aug. 1.

The UNC system also released an Aug. 2 letter from Roper asking that his statements of economic interest be amended “to include certain disclosures I inadvertently omitted in my original filings.” At several points, it references the fact that companies where he was a board member “may have had material business dealings with the state … although I am not aware of any such dealings with the UNC Health Care System.”

Roper added that he’d listed his board memberships on his curriculum vitae and that they were in several of his university biographies.

“I fully informed the School of Medicine, UNC Health Care System, and the UNC System Office of my relationships with DaVita and Express Scripts,” Roper wrote. “Based on guidance provided by the State Ethics Commission in response to my initial disclosures, I worked with the UNC Health Care System to ensure we had in place, and, in fact, took necessary precautions to avoid participating in discussions or decisions on topics that may have given rise to a conflict, or the appearance of a conflict, due to these relationships.”

Another statement released by the system came from the UNC Health Care System's senior vice president and general counsel, B. Glenn George. George, who has held that role since December 2011, said she was advised early in her tenure of Roper's board memberships.

"Dr. Roper consistently left the room whenever there was discussion of issues related to dialysis services, and I never observed him participate in any discussion or decision related to those services at UNC Health Care," George wrote. "Similarly, I do not recall any meetings in which Dr. Roper participated in decisions involving pharmacy services comparable to those provided by Express Scripts."

Corporate Entanglements and University Leaders

University and system leaders have long found themselves scrutinized for their corporate ties. City University of New York chancellor W. Ann Reynolds took flak in 1994 from some who said she spent too much time on boards for five companies. More recently, University of California, Davis, chancellor Linda Katehi resigned in 2016 after a series controversies that included her briefly accepting a board seat at the company operating DeVry University and serving on the board for textbook company Wiley Inc.

Not all presidents serve on corporate boards, but the practice is far from uncommon, according to Judith Wilde, chief operating officer and professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. She and Finkelstein have long studied college presidential pay and corporate board membership. (They have both contributed opinion pieces to Inside Higher Ed.) In a 2010 study, 43 of 134 presidents sampled served on a total of 73 different boards, she said. They made about $11 million in total.

Even a college president who receives little or no compensation for an external board membership may be tugged at by competing priorities, though.

“They all have full board meetings at least once a year,” Wilde said. “They also have committee meetings so that we figured, on average, a president participated in 24 meetings per year per corporate board.”

Presidential contracts often contain provisions allowing presidents to serve on corporate boards for compensation if it does not interfere with their responsibilities to a campus, Finkelstein said.

“In the best contracts, there is language dealing with conflicts of interest,” he said. “Increasingly, the contracts limit the number of boards, most often to no more than two, sometimes three, sometimes only one. And the best contracts we review also have a reporting requirement to the board in terms of compensation received or the amount of time spent.”

The ethics scrutiny is the latest in a long string of leadership controversies at the UNC system and its institutions. Spellings departed from the system’s presidency in January after tensions with the board. Carol Folt resigned the same month from her position as Chapel Hill chancellor amid disagreements over the future of the Silent Sam Confederate monument.

Then in March East Carolina University chancellor Cecil P. Staton said he would soon step down in a decision he “did not initiate.” That prompted one UNC Board of Governors member to criticize the board’s chairman, Smith, for having an “irrational personal vendetta.”

Asked for reaction Wednesday to reporting on Roper’s statement of economic interest forms, two leaders in the system’s Faculty Assembly declined comment. One faculty member said he had “no words.”​

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Categories: Higher Education News

Ruling in UMass Amherst Title IX lawsuit may lead to Supreme Court case, experts say

Inside Higher Ed - News - August 8, 2019 - 5:00pm

A federal appeals court on Tuesday found that a former University of Massachusetts at Amherst student accused of assaulting and harassing his girlfriend was deprived of due process rights when university administrators suspended him without first holding an official hearing.

The ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit also represents a split from a significant opinion last year by the Sixth Circuit's appeals court on the due process rights of students accused of sexual misconduct. It ruled in that decision that students or their representatives must be allowed to directly question their accusers in sexual violence cases.

At the time, experts in Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal law barring sex discrimination and sexual assault on campuses, heralded the opinion as a reformation of due process in such cases, at least among the collection of Midwestern states the Sixth Circuit encompasses. The Sixth Circuit is becoming known for producing more radical opinions in Title IX cases that have made waves among lawyers and college administrators.

The First Circuit opinion agrees with the Sixth Circuit, to an extent, that cross-examination should be mandated in some form. But U.S. Circuit Court Judge William Joseph Kayatta Jr. of the First Circuit wrote in his ruling that the questions don't necessarily need to come from students or their proxies. Parties in a disciplinary dispute can be questioned by a panel of officials and students who are largely responsible for deciding the case, as was the process at UMass Amherst.

The discrepancies in the two courts’ opinions could create an opening for a challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court, though some legal analysts doubt that outcome.

Federal Title IX rules remain in flux. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos nearly two years ago pulled Title IX guidance issued during the Obama administration, which came in the form of a Dear Colleague letter in 2011 and is largely credited with giving sexual assault survivors more protections. Due process activists said the rules violated the rights of the accused. DeVos replaced the guidance with draft regulations that gave colleges more flexibility in adjudicating Title IX cases. Those regulations have yet to be approved.

If those regulations, once finalized, conflict with court decisions across the country, it could lead to chaos among colleges and universities grappling with Title IX cases, experts and lawyers say. And in the interim, institutions, depending on where they're located, will need to follow different policies based on a patchwork of legal rulings.

“I am concerned that these cases give insufficient attention to institutional interests in academic freedom and/or administrative autonomy,” said Peter Lake, director of the Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy at Stetson University. “College court is essentially subject to appeal in federal court more routinely than ever. And instead of uniform national standards created as such, it now matters which jurisdiction you are in. Due process in higher education is becoming a ball of confusion -- a mix of conflicting cases and regulations in flux. Is it fundamentally fair to colleges to create college court this way?”

The UMass Case

Lauren Gibney, a UMass Amherst student, and her mother reported to the university in 2013 that Gibney's boyfriend, James Haidak, with whom she had a “tumultuous relationship,” had assaulted her on a trip in Barcelona while they were studying abroad.

Gibney alleged Haidak put his hands around her throat, pushed her onto a bed, punched himself in the face with her fists and squeezed pressure points on her body and during an argument. Haidak’s account differed. He said he only restrained Gibney because she struck him first and he was attempting to hold her back while she tried to kick him in the groin.

Following Gibney’s report, university administrators forbade Haidak to contact her. Both Gibney and Haidak ignored the order. During the following month, Haidak called Gibney hundreds of times and sent her thousands of text messages -- contact that was “largely welcomed and reciprocated,” the opinion states.

University officials told Haidak on two more occasions that he was violating the university’s code of conduct by potentially harassing Gibney and disregarding the initial no-contact order. Administrators then suspended Haidak in June 2013 without holding a disciplinary hearing. The punishment remained in place for five months.

Haidak and Gibney’s relationship lasted through September 2013, when Gibney finally broke it off. Haidak drunkenly confronted Gibney at a bar where she worked, according to court filings. And during a separate incident, while he was also allegedly intoxicated, he had threatened to kill himself and jumped out of Gibney’s moving car.

The university held a hearing on the accusations against Haidak in November 2013, during which he was found responsible for the initial assault against Gibney in Barcelona and for violating the university’s no-contact orders. But the hearing panel found that he was not guilty of harassment. Haidak was expelled because he had already violated the conduct code twice -- once, he was accused of drunkenly assaulting another student, but ultimately was found responsible for a generic charge of "violating university policy." Another time, he was arrested for disturbing the peace, among other charges.

Haidak sued university officials, alleging that they infringed on his due process rights and violated Title IX by holding a biased hearing. While a federal district court dismissed his claims entirely, the appeals court upheld one allegation: that his suspension had been constitutionally unfair.

Kayatta, the First Circuit judge, wrote that Haidak had been given no prior notice of a hearing about the suspension before it happened. While universities can legally do this in extreme circumstances, Kayatta noted there appeared to be no urgency among officials -- they waited 13 days after they learned Haidak had violated the original no-contact order to suspend him.

“The university offers no evidence suggesting that it was infeasible to provide some type of process during the available 13 days before it imposed a suspension,” Kayatta wrote.

UMass Amherst did not respond to request for comment.

Haidak’s due process rights were not ignored simply because the university hadn’t allowed him to interrogate Gibney directly, according to the opinion. The university let the panel determine the facts of the case and ask questions, not Haidak or Gibney, in a process that is called an “inquisitorial model,” Kayatta wrote. The court did not follow the Sixth Circuit’s opinion that an accused student had to be the one to confront an accuser -- and it was unconvinced that allowing Haidak to do so would have been helpful.

Brett Sokolow, president of the Association of Title IX Administrators, agreed. He said that it’s “human arrogance” to believe cross-examination between students would lead to new facts or better evidence -- in fact, as the First Circuit noted, it may just devolve into an unproductive argument.

Sokolow also was unconvinced that the differences between the First and Sixth Circuit rulings will lead to a Supreme Court challenge. If the First Circuit had ruled cross-examination wasn’t required at all, then it would be more significant, but it’s “just cross-examination in a different style,” he said.

Many institutions use this inquisitorial model and do not allow direct questioning between the accused and an accuser, which is something the 2011 Dear Colleague letter discouraged, said Laura Dunn, founder of sexual assault survivor advocacy group SURVJustice, as well as the L.L. Dunn Law Firm. Dunn said it was crucial the First Circuit recognized this model as legitimate.

“This is a thrilling decision, because it creates a circuit split that may well rise to the Supreme Court, though I would hope Justice Kavanaugh would recuse himself given his expressed disdain for inquisitorial proceedings into his own sexual misconduct accusations,” Dunn said.

Joshua Richards, a lawyer who specializes in higher education at the Philadelphia-based firm Saul Ewing Arnstein and Lehr, said the split between the circuits is dramatic, but as more cases work through court systems across the country, colleges will see whether the Sixth Circuit opinion is more of an outlier or the standard. Colleges and universities have largely followed a more measured approach to adjudicating Title IX cases, similar to the model the First Circuit endorsed, he said.

“There are other cases in every circuit in the country, and the other circuits will confront this issue and have to rule,” Richards said.

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Categories: Higher Education News

Countries often sacrifice postsecondary attainment when they expand subsidies

Inside Higher Ed - News - August 8, 2019 - 5:00pm

Democratic politicians -- many of them vying for their party's 2020 presidential nomination -- propose free college programs or other major investments in higher education that reflect systems in countries like Finland and Sweden. But an American Enterprise Institute report released Thursday argues that when developed nations dedicate more public resources to postsecondary education, they tend to produce fewer graduates.

The institute's customarily contrarian resident fellow, Jason Delisle, and co-author Preston Cooper, an education research analyst at AEI, compared 35 high-income (gross domestic product per capita above $30,000) member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which produces statistics on countries’ total institutional spending, college attainment rates among 25- to 34-year-olds, and government subsidies. The OECD includes almost all large Western and Central European countries, Australia, the Baltic states, Chile, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, North America, Scandinavia, South Korea and Turkey.

Each country makes sacrifices when it prioritizes one aspect of higher education -- attainment rates, institutional spending and government subsidies -- over another, Delisle said, a reality he thinks is often ignored during debates about free college. Politicians in the U.S. like to suggest America can “learn from other countries and take the good parts” of their education systems, without considering the impact subsidized education has on the overall quality and accessibility of college, Delisle said.

“If you have a heavily subsidized system, that leads a country to ration higher education, leading to a system that’s more selective,” Delisle said. “That’s not an egalitarian higher education policy, which a lot of policy makers on the left insist is the case.”

“If you want less college, one way to do that is to make it free,” he said.

Delisle’s interest in researching international spending on higher education was piqued during the 2016 presidential campaign, he said, when Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent, began promoting his plan to eliminate the cost of attending public colleges and universities. More recently, on June 24, Sanders announced his College for All Act, which if passed would eliminate tuition at public institutions and subsidize learning with 100 percent government funding -- 67 percent from Washington and 33 percent from individual states.

“[The legislation] makes certain that all Americans, regardless of income, can get the college education or job training they need to secure decent-paying jobs by making public colleges, universities and trade schools tuition-free and debt-free,” Sanders said in a news release.

However, college admissions would become much more competitive if the U.S. could not rely on tuition to fund its institutions, Delisle said, though the goal of free college policy suggestions is to increase the number of students with degrees.

“The whole public university system in Finland has an admissions rate on par with elite U.S. colleges,” Delisle said. “Not quite as selective as Harvard or the [Ivy League colleges], but if you took a Berkeley, or a [University of Virginia] -- imagine if the entire education system of the U.S. had to meet UVA-level test scores.”

In the report, Delisle highlights Finland, which ranks first among the 35 countries in government subsidies provided for tertiary education (international equivalent to an associate degree or higher in the U.S.). Ninety-six percent of Finland’s higher education resources are public, but its attainment rate -- the proportion of citizens ages 25 to 34 with a degree beyond K-12 education -- is less than 45 percent, placing it 25th among OECD countries. South Korea-based higher education, on the other hand, gets about 36 percent of its funding from the government and achieves a 70 percent attainment rate, the highest among OECD countries, according to the report.

The U.S. ranks 31st for subsidies and third when it comes to institutional resources, which is measured as the amount of money -- a combination of government funds and private dollars -- spent on each full-time-equivalent student. These numbers are also adjusted for a country’s GDP per capita, so as not to penalize countries with smaller economies for spending less.

The report praises more investment in higher education from government and private sources as positive, suggesting that “generally, institutions with greater resources have more latitude to offer a high-quality education.” This could bring criticism from “our colleagues on the right” who prioritize spending reductions, Delisle said.

“We gave [spending] a positive spin, and we also gave attainment a positive spin,” Delisle said. “There are definitely people on the right who would say, ‘We have too many people with college degrees and spend too much on higher education.’”

The OECD includes subsidized student loan programs in its spending metrics, so while governments in the U.S., U.K. and Australia are increasingly providing loans and debt forgiveness, that’s not counted as public funding in the report, Delisle said. Instead, student loans are considered individual expenditures on tuition, though they could be paid off by these governments in the future.

Loans should be kept in mind when reading the report, Delisle said, but they don’t have enough impact in the U.S. to shift the country’s ranking, since the government uses more of a “safety net” model for specific groups of students in need. But forgiven loans make up a higher share of Australia’s and the U.K.’s subsidies, which can’t be seen in the OECD data, he said.

There are other contextual differences between countries that are also absent from data in the report, because these differences are vast and difficult to measure, Delisle said. One variance -- countries’ typical age range for college attainment -- could affect how the report is read, said Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates.

While the AEI report analyzes 25- to 34-year-olds who may or may not have degrees, students in Nordic countries tend to start college later and often take breaks from their learning to participate in the labor market, Usher said. Additionally, Nordic countries have a lower wage premium for college-educated adults than the U.S., he said.

“Those countries tend to look fantastic when you look at adult education -- it’s actually adults who are going back and forth and taking breaks” from higher ed, Usher said. “Here, it’s normal at age 25 to have a degree. There, it’s not so normal.”

But this should not discredit the report’s overall findings and purpose: to remind policy makers that importing other countries’ specific higher education models is not as easy as copying and pasting, Usher said.

“What looks like a strong relationship or strong system could have trade-offs later on,” he said. “I think if there’s a Democrat elected into office in 2020, they’re going to need [a reminder] like that.”

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Categories: Higher Education News

Archaeology society continues to anger members with how it responds to negative feedback

Inside Higher Ed - News - August 8, 2019 - 5:00pm

The Society for American Archaeology is still taking heat for how it handled a sexual harassment case at its meeting earlier this year -- and how it then blocked critics on social media.

Now the association is censoring member feedback, according to an internal email accidentally shared with a graduate student.

The society contacted first Elic Weitzel, a gradate student in anthropology at the University of Connecticut, late last month, asking him for a member testimonial “for possible inclusion on the new website, revamped membership brochure and social media channels.” The email said that Weitzel was an engaged member of the society and asked him to comment on what the organization means to him, what advice he’d give a student member and why he chose to join.

Those are loaded questions, given that many archaeologists continue to express disappointment over what happened at the society’s meeting in April and after: the organization allowed David Yesner, an archaeologist who’d recently been banned from the University of Alaska at Anchorage over multiple sexual misconduct reports against him, to attend the meeting -- over the protests of women present who said Yesner had harassed them. And when the science journalist Michael Balter told Yesner to leave, the society kicked Balter out of the meeting. (Yesner hasn’t commented publicly on the allegations against him.)

Following the meeting, several of the women involved said they were frustrated with the society’s response to their concerns. The organization drew more ire when it blocked a number of member critics on social media.

Citing the Albuquerque, N.M., meeting and its aftermath, Weitzel wrote in his testimonial that he wasn’t sure the organization has “much value anymore,” unless those responsible for “mismanaging the events surrounding David Yesner at the last meeting are removed from their positions.” As for what the society means to him, Weitzel wrote, “A once-great organization that is now suffering from mismanagement and denial surrounding the events of the last meeting.” He also said he’s reconsidering his membership.

Then, earlier this month, Weitzel got a letter of apology from the organization -- and an obviously misdirected internal communication about his response.

“I contacted Elic Weitzel to provide a member testimonial because we thought he was an involved and engaged student,” the misdirected email about his testimonial said. “It turns out that he is involved/engaged, however probably not in the way we would like.”

Weitzel shared the response on social media, saying, “Very sorry that being angered about sexual misconduct and your handling of last April's conference is not what you would like from your student members, SAA.” Little has apparently changed within the organization, he said. Weitzel shared similar concerns in a formal letter to the organization.

The society reached out to Weitzel. This week, he shared a number of suggestions for improvement with its representatives. More social media, not less, is best, he said, noting that he was poised to help as a representative on the organization’s Media Relations Committee. Weitzel also advised unblocking everyone on Twitter.

The society later shared an apology about the internal email on its Twitter account, saying what happened to Weitzel was wrong and that “it is precisely this type of honest feedback that we need in order to improve, no matter how hard it is to hear.”

Last week, we attempted to reach out to a member of our organization, Elic Weitzel, to solicit his comments for our recruitment brochure. Elic responded by directing our attention to the many documented mistakes we have made following the Albuquerque conference. /1

— SAA (@SAAorg) August 6, 2019

Oona Schmid, executive director of the society, said via email Wednesday that Weitzel “was not blocked or censored by SAA” and that the comments “made by an SAA employee were referring to a request for a testimonial in a membership brochure.”

Schmid added, “We are in the process of reviewing our policies and procedures to enhance transparency and trust. This will take time, but we are committed to listening to feedback from all of our members.”

In the meantime, a number of archaeologists, including former Media Relations Committee chair Kristina Killgrove, remain blocked from the society’s account.

“I truly hope SAA is learning from this,” Killgrove said. “It's one of the things I'm trying to do -- make them learn and hold them accountable to membership. Organizations as large as SAA -- and run by paid staff -- tend to see their top priority the preservation of the organization. And that kind of sucks.”

Still, Killgrove and others -- including Anchorage anthropology student Norma Johnson, who has identified herself as one of Yesner’s targets -- say that Weitzel has already gotten a clearer apology than the women affected by Yesner’s presence at the conference did.

A step in the right direction, however I would like to point out that @ElicWeitzel’s questions are similar to what those of us #saa2019 were asking in April/May before being dismissed as “snarky”. A privileged professional man has received more courtesy than many women have. https://t.co/E4ovvDAs1K

— Norma Johnson (@nmj428) August 7, 2019 FacultyEditorial Tags: AnthropologyFacultySexual assaultSocial media/networkingImage Source: TwitterIs this diversity newsletter?: Newsletter Order: 0Disable left side advertisement?: Is this Career Advice newsletter?: Magazine treatment: Trending: Display Promo Box: 
Categories: Higher Education News

Concordia College president's wife caught in lawsuit over mental health privacy

Inside Higher Ed - News - August 8, 2019 - 5:00pm

A dispute over confidential information at a mental health services center on Concordia College’s campus in New York has led to a lawsuit that has embroiled administrators, including the wife of the college president.

As was first reported by LoHud, Erika Rexhouse, a licensed clinical social worker who was terminated as director of the college’s Wellness Center in February, brought the case against Concordia in March. She claimed the college had violated state whistle-blower laws. Rexhouse had made a complaint against Monique Nunes, who at the time had served as senior director of student experience. Nunes is also married to John Arthur Nunes, the college’s president.

According to the lawsuit, Rexhouse alleges that on numerous occasions Nunes attempted to get confidential information about students who had sought access to the mental health services provided by the Wellness Center. Rexhouse reported these instances to the college’s human resources officer and legal counsel.

The lawsuit lays out several instances in which Nunes allegedly tried to obtain information of this nature despite the fact she was not a licensed professional and thus was not allowed to do so under state law. One incident involves an unnamed student who sought help from the Wellness Center due to a history of sexual abuse. The student didn’t want Nunes to learn of the history, the lawsuit claimed, yet Nunes learned of it anyway despite the fact that it was told in confidence. The lawsuit claims Nunes shared the information with her husband. Rexhouse again shared her concern regarding Nunes’s behavior with administrators after this event.

Shortly after this event, the college announced Nunes would resign from her position at the university at the end of the semester.

Robert Bernstein, an attorney representing Rexhouse, said the timing of Nunes's resignation announcement seemed to indicate it was related to the event.

“The timing of Mrs. Nunes’s resignation, coming as it did so soon after Mrs. Nunes allegedly entered a private exam room where a student mental health patient in 'crisis' was awaiting transport via ambulance to a local hospital, Ms. Rexhouse’s immediately raising the issue of Mrs. Nunes’s abuse of confidential patient information, once again, with her superior … and the fear that knowledge of what occurred would soon be circulating around the college campus, certainly suggests Mrs. Nunes’s resignation was a result of this situation,” Bernstein said in an email. “But we won’t know for sure until we get discovery, which is the next [phase] of the case.”

Shortly after this, Rexhouse said she was terminated by the university as a result of a financial restructuring after which the college would no longer fund mental health services. The lawsuit said, however, the Wellness Center continued to operate after Rexhouse’s termination.

The suit claims the college unlawfully retaliated against Rexhouse, as she was protected by whistle-blower laws. Rexhouse is also seeking damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Despite a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, a judge allowed one portion, alleging violation of whistle-blower laws, to proceed. The judge denied another component of the whistle-blower claim on the grounds the plaintiff hadn't proven a risk to the public, and also denied the intentional infliction of emotional distress claim.

A college spokesperson, Holly Magnani, said in a statement that the college was expecting “complete vindication.”

“In accordance with Concordia College New York's policy and prudent practice, we will not comment on any pending litigation,” Magnani said. “We do not try our lawsuits in the media, but in court. Our adherence to this policy and prudent practice should not be construed as suggesting that any claims against the college have any merit whatsoever; indeed, just last week the court dismissed the bulk of the claims Ms. Rexhouse had filed against the college, and we look forward to complete vindication in the days to come.”

Bernstein said the ruling represented a win for privacy and mental health resources on college campuses.

“This is a critically important ruling because it recognizes the importance of privacy when it comes to the treatment of students on campus with mental health issues,” Bernstein said. “The ruling also recognizes the overarching importance today of colleges providing mental health treatment options to their students.”

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Categories: Higher Education News

Another professor under fire for using N-word in class while discussing James Baldwin

Inside Higher Ed - News - August 7, 2019 - 5:00pm

Being a good writer and a good writing teacher don’t always go hand in hand. But for poet and novelist Laurie Sheck, they do. Sheck’s been a Pulitzer Prize finalist, held prestigious fellowships, written books and seen her work published in The New Yorker, The New York Times and Paris Review. She’s taught for 20 years -- most recently at the New School -- and consistently gets positive feedback from students. A good share of those students ask her to be their thesis adviser.

But with a new semester approaching, Sheck isn’t sure where she stands at the New School. She’s heard almost nothing from the institution since a June meeting, during which she was accused of saying the N-word in class while quoting the black writer James Baldwin.

Sheck is still under investigation -- probably. She’s not sure, because the university officials she met with didn’t let her record the meeting (other than by allowing a union representative to take notes), and she’s never seen anything in writing on the case against her.

The school's faculty union advised Sheck to consider taking a “conciliatory position,” such as by changing her curriculum, providing trigger warnings or having students read potentially offending passages themselves, instead of out loud.

But Sheck, who has appealed to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for help, wants to be fully exonerated -- soon.

“I haven’t done anything wrong,” she said. “So what we’re trying to do here is get things out in the open. When these things are covert and people feel quietly intimidated into changing the syllabus, that’s not going to help students. It just feels like enough is enough.”

‘The Creative Process’

Sheck says the class meeting in question was early in the spring semester, when she gave a group of creative writing graduate students a copy of Baldwin’s essay “The Creative Process.”

During a conversation about Baldwin’s argument that the “war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war,” Sheck asked the class if anyone had seen the 2016 documentary film on Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro.” In so doing, she noted that the title of the documentary used the word “negro,” instead of the N-word, which Baldwin used in an appearance on "The Dick Cavett Show" (that clip of the show is in the documentary). Sheck said she used the actual word because Baldwin used it, and because future class texts included the word, as well.

“As writers, words are all we have,” Sheck said. “And we have to give [Baldwin] credit that he used the word he did on purpose.”

Immediately a white student in the class objected to Sheck’s language. Sheck, who is also white, said she asked the student why, to help her explore her own thinking about it. The student said she’d been told by a professor at her undergraduate institution that white people are never to use the term, under any circumstances, Sheck recalled. So Sheck told her that that was “one school of thought.”

The semester went on with little incident (Sheck said the student even asked her for a letter of recommendation to enter into a parallel writing program on campus, and that she obliged). But during an end-of-class presentation, the same student changed her preplanned topic to a surprise one about racism at the New School -- including the Baldwin quote earlier in the semester -- an in the publishing industry.

Sheck said she interjected at certain points during the student's presentation, because the student did not allow fellow students to ask questions or challenge statements.

A Meeting

When Sheck got the notice about the June meeting soon after, she had a feeling as to what it was about. But the email labeled "urgent" from the office of the general counsel mentioned only student complaints about Sheck's conduct under the college's discrimination policy. It warned her not to mention the matter to students, or risk violating the New School's policies against retaliation.

In advance of the gathering, Sheck contacted her United Auto Workers-affiliated faculty union. In an email to Sheck, a union representative said that Sheck is “an academic who should have academic freedom to teach difficult material, but you are also an employee who has an obligation to follow the directions of your employer. There is no question but that these two things are sometimes in conflict.”

The representative said that the union would at least “assist” with any grievance Sheck filed, but not necessarily to "arbitrate" it. It “may be in your interest to compromise, or to take a conciliatory position,” the representative continued. “This is your choice. But failing to do so may have consequences. I want you to be aware of them, that is all. For better or worse, public opinion has changed on this issue.”

Sheck said that public opinion has indeed changed with regard to the N-word -- and that her goal was to help students explore that shift for themselves, through literature. She said that she understands the hurt the word can cause and that she's experienced the pain of discrimination as the mother of a nonwhite child. But students, especially graduate students, should be trusted to determine when the word is used in an educational context, not a deliberately hurtful one, she said.

Asked if she blamed the unnamed undergraduate instructor who supposedly said the N-word is off-limits to white people, Sheck said no.

“I don't blame anyone. That’s part of what we need here -- a culture where there is freedom of speech.”

Sheck expects due process from the New School, however. She said reports like the one made against her should be lodged within 60 days of any incident, according to college policy. So if the student didn’t report her until the end of the semester, Sheck said, the college deviated from its own standards.

In addition to being exonerated, Sheck said she wants the college to “live up to its founding principles, and to think very carefully about the tone and message it conveys when it conducts a prolonged investigation of a case like mine, with nothing given in writing to the accused, and no indication of a timely verdict.”

Once administrators heard her case, she said, “they should have realized it was their responsibility to promptly acknowledge my lack of wrongdoing and assert the university’s commitment to academic freedom.”

Whatever “bureaucratic rationale” the school might offer for the “prolonged time frame,” it's made for a "culture of intimidation rather than one that holds precious the principles and practice of genuine inquiry.”

A Mandatory Inquiry?

Do institutions have to investigate every complaint they receive? Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon, director of litigation at FIRE, said that any institution receiving federal funding must “investigate to address or prevent a hostile educational environment on the basis of race” under federal law, similar to hostile environment claims on the basis of sex. But FIRE Sheck's in-class speech “would not rise to the level of a hostile environment," in that it doesn’t “violate the university's own discrimination policies," she said.

Similarly, Will Creeley, a senior vice president at FIRE who wrote a letter to the New School on Sheck's behalf, said in a statement that the "misguided investigation warns faculty and students that good-faith engagement with difficult political, social and academic questions will result in investigation and possible discipline -- even when those same questions are being widely discussed by other commentators online and in the media.”

In response to Creeley's letter, the college wrote to FIRE that it’s “proud to be a place that embraces rigorous academic inquiry, diverse perspectives and respectful debate.” But it didn’t offer additional details on Sheck's case, citing union involvement and general personnel confidentiality principles.

The New School said in a statement Tuesday that regardless of the “instance or issue, mutual respect and fairness remain fundamental values expected from every member of our community. While we don’t comment on confidential personnel matters, we take our responsibility in these matters very seriously and have robust policies and procedures in place that we follow.”

Beyond Sheck, a number of professors have been reported, investigated or sanctioned for using the N-word in class in recent years. In one instance, Augsburg University suspended a professor for using the N-word, also while discussing a Baldwin work in which it appeared. In that case, it was The Fire Next Time.

But debates over the word don’t always involve administrators or formal reports and investigations. Geoffrey Stone, Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago, said earlier this year that he had a change of heart about using the N-word in his First Amendment class, after meeting with a group of students about the issue.

Chicago said in a statement at the time that it is “deeply committed to the values of academic freedom and the free expression of ideas, and to fostering a diverse and inclusive climate on campus.”

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Categories: Higher Education News

Wayne State University board deadlocked amid continued infighting and legal challenges

Inside Higher Ed - News - August 7, 2019 - 5:00pm

When four members of the eight-member Wayne State University Board of Governors sued the other four at the end of June, many outsiders looked on with concern for the institution’s ability to continue functioning.

That wasn't the start of the board's troubles, by any means; its members first divided deeply last fall over a contested move to renew President M. Roy Wilson's contract. Now, the deadlocked board seems no closer to reconciliation than it did weeks ago. However, some evidence suggests that the unique nature of the board -- a directly elected group with an even, not odd, number of members -- could be at the center of some of its problems.

The board members -- chosen in statewide elections to serve eight-year terms -- have fashioned themselves into two factions: four members supportive of Wilson and the four currently sitting on the other side, referred to often by parties close to the situation as “the plaintiffs.”

The plaintiffs got their name after the board’s most recent meeting in late June, which occurred while one board member, Anil Kumar, was on a vacation. The issue of a complicated real estate transaction, a deal on which the board was split, was added to the agenda. Three other board members chose to boycott the meeting due to Kumar’s absence, hoping to deprive the other members of a quorum.

However, the board’s other four members claimed quorum had been reached due to Wilson’s presence in an ex officio capacity, holding the meeting and voting in favor of the real estate deal and increasing tuition 3.2 percent.

Kumar and three other members of the board brought a lawsuit against Kim Trent, the board’s chair, and her supporters, stating that holding the meeting violated state open meeting regulations. A judge threw out much of the lawsuit last week, ruling in favor of the defendants and letting the decisions made at the June meeting stand. (Note: This article has been corrected from an earlier version to note that a judge had ruled in the lawsuit.)

Dana Thompson, a board member and plaintiff in the lawsuit, said Wilson and his supporters took the opportunity of Kumar’s vacation to ram through the real estate deal.

“For months, the administration was aware that one of our fellow governors, who was opposed to the real estate acquisition, would not be present at the scheduled meeting due to an out-of-the-country vacation he had planned prior to his election to the board,” Thompson said in an email. “Without Dr. Kumar present, our colleagues believed they could, once and for all, outvote us on an issue we had routinely opposed and defeated.”

The real estate deal involves Wilson’s attempts to acquire a property in Detroit to house university physicians. The deal was approved at the meeting for which the plaintiffs were absent.

However, both Thompson and Trent have said all these issues are part of a larger conflict that has been brewing within the board for many months.

A Board on the Outs

The Wayne State Board of Governors is one of a handful of governing boards in the country that is chosen directly in statewide elections, as opposed to appointed by state governors. Besides Michigan, only universities in Colorado, Nebraska and Nevada have elected governing boards. Wayne State’s board members serve eight-year terms, with at least two members up for re-election every year.

Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, says the ideal public university board has members with complementary skill sets: "a background in finance, a background in academic affairs, a background in student life, a background in auditing."

It's not that governors always aim for that when they select board members -- many slots are filled with donors, regardless of background -- "but it's certainly harder with elected boards," Poliakoff said.

Eric Lupher, president of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, echoed this point, saying that appointed boards give governors the option to work in tandem with universities to determine what kind of person the board needs to help fill in experience gaps

“The difference between the elected and the appointed -- the elected boards, at least in Michigan, have tended to be either politically active people on their way out of politics … or people aspiring to higher office and this is a stepping-stone, and I don’t mean to diminish at all that they care about the university,” Lupher said. “But my observation with appointed boards is that a lot of the time when there’s a vacancy, the governor will be in touch with the university and talk about the assets the current board members bring and what is needed.”

Lupher said appointments more often lead to a board where the members are on the same page about the vision for the university, and with elected boards it is generally harder to build consensus.

“My sense of what’s going on at Wayne State is that it’s driven more by politics than by anything else -- there’s different visions of the university and how to get there, whereas if I think it was an appointed board, the conflicts wouldn’t raise to this level where [the board members] just refuse to convene or dismiss decisions that were made by a subset of the board,” Lupher said. “The politics of it takes it to a whole new level.”

Concerns over elected boards in Michigan aren’t new -- anger over the Michigan State board’s handling of the Larry Nassar scandal led to some lawmakers in 2018 attempting to change state law to put appointment power in the governor’s hands. The efforts were unsuccessful.

Being an elected board may not be the only issue facing Wayne State. The board is also made up of eight people, and its war has split the board right down the middle. Four members on one side refuse to cave, and the same is true on the other side.

A study of corporate boards conducted at Nanyang Technological University, while not an apples-to-apples comparison, revealed that boards with an odd number of members had higher scores on various performance metrics and better overall outcomes for the firm.

The fact that Wayne State’s board had exactly half of the members boycotting the board is what led to the other side holding a meeting claiming that Wilson’s presence constituted a quorum -- the decision that led to the lawsuit at the heart of the conflict.

Damaged Relationships

Trent said the beginning of the rift between the two factions within the board can be linked to a lame-duck vote last December. Then, Wilson’s contract was extended by the board -- before board members who had been elected in November could take their seats. However, Trent said she didn’t believe the Wayne State board’s issues were that much greater than those of other boards.

“There were some board members who did not want to extend [Wilson’s] contract,” Trent said. “Or they wanted to wait until the new board members were seated. However, at least one of the newly elected board members said they would have voted for him, so it’s not like [Wilson] wouldn’t have the votes anyway. But ever since then, we’ve had problems as a board with getting along. There’s been tremendous distrust.”

Thompson also pointed to the lame-duck vote as a “breaking point” for the relationships on the board.

“During the course of President Wilson’s tenure, he and his administration have shown a lack of transparency with all of the statewide elected and constitutionally mandated Wayne State University Board of Governors,” Thompson said. “The Wayne State Board of Governors is elected statewide by the citizens of Michigan for eight-year terms and hires the president of Wayne State University. This lame-duck session of the board insisted on President Wilson’s contract extension although his contract did not end until July 2020.”

Trent said issues between board members have been worsened by continued leaks to the press by “some board members.” Trent alleged that a board member leaked the fact that the board was in the beginning of talks with the Henry Ford Medical Center to create a partnership. After some board members expressed displeasure over the idea of the partnership, Trent said, those board members went to the press and claimed the deal was dead, prompting Henry Ford Medical Center to withdraw from the discussions.

“Board members don’t always get along, and they don’t always agree,” Trent said. “But what’s new in our dynamic is that for some reason we have board members who think it’s appropriate to go to the press or go public with their grievances instead of training to work them out within the board.”

Thompson, however, said that Trent’s allegations of press leaks coming from the plaintiff faction within the board were false.

This episode was just another in the long series of clashes leading to where the board currently stands.

How to Move Forward?

When asked how to mend the divide within the board, Thompson said definitively that it would require the opposing faction to begin behaving differently.

“The board can begin to mend the divide by having each board member recognize our constitutional duty to act as fiduciaries of the university,” Thompson said. “The entire board should schedule a special meeting to reconsider the issues purportedly voted upon without quorum at the June 21, 2019, meeting, giving the entire board the opportunity to vote on the issues that the defendants attempted to push through. The board’s fiduciary duties are to the citizens of Michigan, not to protect President Wilson at all costs.”

It’s unlikely the 2020 election will do anything to alleviate the divide among the board. Only two board members are up for re-election -- Trent and Sandra O’Brien -- both on opposite sides of the board’s war.

“Getting really good consulting services that can help people work through these differences that now involve a breakdown of trust and a deep level of suspicion may be one of the only ways forward,” Poliakoff said. “But it really depends on the board itself being willing to come together and recognize that they as fiduciaries have the ultimate responsibility for the well-being of the institution and that the public is watching.”

Trent said the board has had a number of retreats, with the aim of improving relations, that have ended positively, only for the relationships to sour again soon after.

“I think there’s a larger issue at stake -- larger than the lawsuit, larger than Roy Wilson. It’s about protecting the brand,” Trent said. “I don’t want to see our brand be tarnished by the actions of some board members who are entrusted with protecting the brand. I really hope we can all come to a place where we respectfully disagree.”

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Categories: Higher Education News

Author discusses new book on inclusion, free speech and political correctness on campus

Inside Higher Ed - News - August 7, 2019 - 5:00pm

As president of Wesleyan University since 2007, Michael S. Roth is no stranger to the debates that have consumed American higher education. He has defended invitations to controversial speakers, generally those who are on the right. He's called for institutions like Wesleyan to be as welcoming to conservative students as to liberals. In a new book, Safe Enough Spaces: A Pragmatist’s Approach to Inclusion, Free Speech and Political Correctness on College Campuses (Yale University Press), Roth talks about how to defend free speech and campus values of inclusion -- and also touches on issues of affirmative action.

Q: You write that "wherever one stands on issues of affirmative action, most can agree that diversity isn't just about admissions -- it's about the educational culture created by a university." But given the debates about getting in, do you think universities do a good job with affirmative action?

A: There are at least three different debates going on about access to universities in the United States. The first is a debate about how to make college more affordable, more accessible, to more young people across the country. This is a crucial conversation that depends on shoring up public support for community colleges and public universities -- schools that enroll the majority of those enrolled in higher education. And we don’t just have to figure out how to provide access to these schools; we need to improve completion rates while reducing debt levels. Free college for everyone may make for a popular stump speech, but what we really need is affordable college for those with financial need. This will take massive public investment.

The other “debate about getting in” has to do with how people are chosen for admission to highly selective colleges and universities. This will always be fraught because there are many, many more qualified applicants than there are spots available at highly selective schools. I don’t think admissions should be based on a single exam or group of exams, and in a holistic process, there will always be the possibility of some controversy. (And even with exams, controversy follows from perceived scarcity.) There will always be complaints that someone had an unfair advantage in the process (and some do). Still, part of the responsibility of college admissions departments is to bring in a class that makes it possible for all students to benefit from a diverse student body; the responsibility of the institution is to create an environment in which people can learn with/from folks different from themselves. The colleges and universities that I know work very hard to build equitable diversity through admissions; the even greater challenge these days is creating equitable inclusion for all students after they matriculate. I address this subject in the first section of Safe Enough Spaces.

There is a third debate I should mention regarding elite schools, and that is around the question of whether they are cementing inequality or providing paths for social mobility. The data recently analyzed by Raj Chetty and his colleagues show that the former is often the case. Although many schools have made progress in diversifying their student bodies, it is still true that in many of the most selective institutions more undergraduates come from the top 1 percent of the income bracket than from the bottom 60 percent. It is clear that inequality in America has long affected elementary and high schools, and that it is increasingly difficult for low-income families to find educational opportunities that will result in their students being college-ready at age 17. Colleges can’t themselves correct for this systemic problem in K-12 education.

Richard V. Reeves has described “opportunity hoarding” by the wealthiest fifth of the American population. The upper middle class has focused on securing special privileges for its children, he writes, adding that “education has … become the main mechanism for the reproduction of upper-middle-class status across generations.” As inequality has gotten worse, the benefit of having a college diploma has gotten greater. Still, at many elite schools we continue to privilege the privileged -- whether through admissions offices that give alumni relatives an advantage, or through geographically based marketing plans that aim recruiting messages at those already most likely to succeed because of the advantages they already have. Some schools have made significant changes, but providing more opportunity for deep learning among the most marginalized populations remains a challenge. This is an important priority for us at Wesleyan University, and we have created strong partnerships with community-based organizations to make economically sustainable progress in this regard. What would it take for all schools to think of this as a civic responsibility essential to their mission?

Q: What do you make of the criticisms from academe of Allan Bloom and Richard Bernstein?

A: Allan Bloom and Richard Bernstein had different political positions on many topics, but they shared the notion that multiculturalism on American university campuses had become a sterile orthodoxy. The Closing of the American Mind (1987) didn’t use the term “politically correct,” but Bloom’s diagnosis of what was ailing American higher education echoed (and echoes to this day) in complaints about PC culture. Now, Bloom was interested not in the average college student but in students who wound up at America’s very best colleges and universities. As he saw it, the 1960s and 1970s had turned college campuses into bastions of prejudice that made serious learning all but impossible. The prejudice with which these students had been inculcated since they were schoolchildren, he asserted, is that tolerance is the greatest virtue and that everyone should have their own truth (or later, their own passion). We don’t argue that only some beliefs are respectable; we assume that since we don’t know which beliefs are true, we must respect them all. Nobody can be wrong, because nobody can be right.

Bernstein’s Dictatorship of Virtue appeared at the height of the 1990s PC frenzy, when the multiculturalism Bloom derided seemed to have become an enforceable dogma. Bernstein saw a commitment to inclusivity and equality as having become a demand for moral purity. He was dismayed that the doctrine of assimilation, in which his own forebears had trusted when they came to this country, had been replaced by a celebration of difference. Almost 30 years ago, Bernstein argued that we no longer needed strong programs to remove barriers to integration for those who had been discriminated against or marginalized in earlier times. He seemed to believe that his own family’s assimilationist success story meant that “strident anti-immigration sentiments” and “organized nativism” were things of the past. Today, the rise of neo-fascist policies and rhetoric at the highest levels of government makes Bernstein’s claims seem naïve, but his prediction that excessive efforts to expose the negative dimensions of American history would produce a backlash to “make America great again” turned out to be uncannily accurate.

Q: What do you make of the term "politically correct"?

A: Safe Enough Spaces charts the cultural complaints that resulted in the popularity of the label “politically correct.” Among activists on the left, the use of the term “politically incorrect” was meant to signal that their radicalism was more outlaw than doctrinaire. Claiming oneself to be “politically incorrect” or accusing a sanctimonious comrade of political correctness was not atypical banter. By the 1990s, though, accusations of “political correctness” would become a theatricalized staple of conservative discourse, especially popular among critics who regarded the diversity and multiculturalism on American university campuses as sterile orthodoxy. Setting the stage for this was philosopher Bloom’s bestseller. With Closing of the American Mind, Bloom transformed himself from isolated, mandarin professor to bestselling conservative scold by excoriating students for their addiction to rock music and deafness to the higher pleasures of Straussian contemplation. By the 1990s, it was common knowledge that you could attract a crowd of supporters by attacking political correctness, and in recent years we have seen that anyone with access to a keyboard or a microphone can find an audience by complaining about it.

Many who whine bitterly about a monolithic PC culture on college campuses are themselves, paradoxically, working within universities and their adjacent institutions. Some of these well-meaning folks believed they were themselves liberal, and now they claim (loudly, as it so happens) that they are afraid to speak at all. Accusing those with whom you disagree of being PC has become a rhetorical reflex. Just moan to your friends and colleagues (your in-group) about somebody else being censorious or oversensitive, all the while censoring that person and complaining about being hurt yourself. But how to tell which complaints are to be taken seriously? Are some African Americans oversensitive about stop and frisk, or only about cultural appropriation? Are transgender people thin-skinned if they are concerned with bans against their participation in public life, or only if they call out misgendering? Where does one draw the line, or rather, who gets to draw the line? As conversations and actions can be observed by broader groups of people, how does one know to whom one is speaking (and who is listening)? In the absence of an in-group constituted by affection or tradition, even liberals may discover that, despite their good intentions, they are being criticized from the left, or at least from the young or other people new to the debate. As one encounters differently diverse groups of people, it doesn’t feel good to be outflanked, and so we see a tendency to respond by calling the newcomers politically correct.

Name-calling or assuming the status of the victimized are among the least productive forms of disagreement. Outrage may lead to feelings of solidarity, but it insulates us from the possibility of changing our minds, from opening our thinking. And that’s why I argue that students, faculty and citizens must avoid falling into the tired tropes of both callout culture and accusations of political correctness. This requires staying engaged with those with whom one disagrees, and not just about abstract issues like whether we have become unconscious relativists. Conversations about race and about the economy, about bias and sexual assault, about jobs and the shrinking middle class … all tend to involve strong emotions, intense language and, sometimes, bruised feelings. People do get “called out” for their supposed racism or general privilege, and this can seem to them unfair or just painful. As a result, some people will complain that they don’t want to speak up because they fear being “criticized” or “stigmatized.” These people should recognize that their fear isn’t a sign of the environment’s political correctness or hostility toward free expression; it’s just a sign that they need more courage -- for it requires courage to stay engaged with difference. Staying engaged with difference, including intellectual diversity, is the best “on the ground” refutation of the “PC” charge.

Q: You talk of mostly supporting free speech on campus. Who would be justifiably barred by a (private) campus?

A: The libertarian or marketplace approach to free speech often claims that if anyone is excluded from speaking, we are on a slippery slope to pernicious censorship. Drawing on the work of several other scholars, I argue that if there is a slippery slope, we are always already on it. Defenses of free speech always exclude something. As Stanley Fish has often reminded us, for the poet John Milton (a favorite of free speech absolutists), Catholics were excluded from free speech protections. For us today, child pornography or incitements to violence would usually be considered beyond the pale. Typically, the exclusions can be enforced informally by social or professional pressure (appeals to civility, ostracism), but borders for acceptable speech also get codified in rules and regulations. And there are always borders.

That said, I don’t have a formula for excluding speakers or performers from campus. In Safe Enough Spaces, I do point out that we do not have to provide a platform for those whose principal goal is the intimidation or persecution of others. Sometimes, a group of people may say they feel assaulted by someone else’s ideas, but we should have a very high threshold for accepting that someone’s ideas are too disturbing for us to even try to refute them. However, to say that a university is a marketplace of ideas where we must entertain all provocateurs is neither an accurate description of higher education nor a legitimate principle on which to build policy.

When markets are unregulated, real pollution, real harm, occurs -- and those who are hurt tend to be those who historically have been vulnerable. In the last several years, the pollution on campus has often come from right-wing provocateurs who come to speak at institutions of higher learning to add credence and energy to racist, homophobic and sexist attitudes and practices. This dynamic increases in intensity as harmful effects are repeated. When those in positions of authority insist that this is not real harm because it’s not physical violence, or when First Amendment fundamentalists opine that “all of us” sometimes feel marginalized, it is no wonder that many students have learned to see the ideology of market deregulation at the heart of free speech dogmatism. They have learned this because they have experienced that power matters in regard to speech as well as other things. University leaders must be conscious of this as they work within their particular campus cultures to expand intellectual diversity and to promote the engagement with difference. We must not let the absolutist doctrine of “more speech” become as unhealthy for universities as the doctrine of deregulation has been for the environment.

Q: How do you see the issues differently on public campuses?

A: I have spent my career at private institutions, and I don’t pretend to have any expertise about public universities. That said, every campus -- public or private -- has its own distinctive culture, regulations and relationship to the political sphere. Navigating the various constituencies of those cultures so as to promote a richer education for all is the task of administrative and faculty leadership. At public institutions one has the added burden of dealing with state legislatures that often are reluctant to fund quality research and teaching, and these same officials often create conditions for the operation of public campuses that may have little to do with their educative purposes. However, the task of expanding intellectual diversity while cultivating inclusion for the sake of deeper learning is common to us all -- as is the task of making a case for this learning and the research which makes it possible.

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Categories: Higher Education News

Court orders Fordham to recognize Students for Justice in Palestine group

Inside Higher Ed - News - August 7, 2019 - 5:00pm

A New York State judge has ordered Fordham University to recognize a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine as a university-sanctioned club after the dean of students, Keith Eldredge, rejected the student group’s petition for recognition based on its political agenda.

“Since there is nothing in the record of Dean Keith Eldridge’s determination supporting his authority to reject an application of a student club because it criticized the policies of only one nation, the determination must be annulled as arbitrary and capricious,” Justice Nancy M. Bannon wrote in a July 29 decision ordering the private Jesuit university to recognize the group.

The order comes more than two years after students filed suit opposing Fordham's decision to deny the group recognition. In a Dec. 22, 2016, email, Eldredge, the dean of students at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus, based the denial in part on the potential for the group to be polarizing.

Students for Justice in Palestine chapters at other colleges have hosted controversial events and programs such as those marking "Israeli Apartheid Week," and they have been heavily involved in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. The Anti-Defamation League, a pro-Israel group that opposes anti-Semitism, states in a profile of SJP on its website that chapters of the group "disseminate anti-Israel propaganda often laced with inflammatory and at times combative rhetoric" and that they "regularly demonize Jewish students who identify as Zionists or proud supporters of the State of Israel."

“While students are encouraged to promote diverse political points of view, and we encourage conversation and debate on all topics, I cannot support an organization whose sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group, and against a specific country, when these goals clearly conflict with and run contrary to the mission and values of the university,” Eldredge wrote.

“There is perhaps no more complex topic than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it is a topic that often leads to polarization rather than dialogue,” Eldredge continued. “The purpose of the organization as stated in the proposed club constitution points toward that polarization. Specifically, the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel presents a barrier to open dialogue and mutual learning and understanding.”

Justice Bannon found that Fordham did not in this case follow its published rules regarding the recognition of student organizations in that it seemingly imposed an additional level of review by the dean after the group was approved by the United Student Government. Further, she wrote that the dean’s discretion to veto a club proposal “is neither unlimited nor unfettered.”

“The issue of whether a club’s political message may be polarizing is not enumerated or identified as a relevant factor in any governing or operating rules, regulations or guidelines issued by Fordham, and appears to have been arbitrarily considered by Dean Eldredge after input from others who are critical of SJP’s political beliefs. Importantly, consideration of whether a group’s message may be polarizing is contrary to the notion that universities should be centers of discussion of contested issues.”

Justice Bannon wrote that Fordham’s status as a private university did not merit dismissal of the students’ challenge. “Although Fordham is not a public university, and thus not expressly subject to First Amendment limitations on its right to restrict opinions that might be controversial or unpopular … Fordham’s own rules, regulations and guidelines do not empower the dean of students to restrict the university’s recognition of a student club based on its potential for raising issues or taking political positions that might be controversial or unpopular with a segment of the university community.” The justice cited Fordham’s mission statement, which references freedom of inquiry and critical thinking, among other values.

A Fordham spokesman, Bob Howe, declined a request to interview Eldredge. “Fordham University is committed to serving all of its students and their interests both in and out of the classroom,” Howe said via email. “The university is reviewing the court’s decision before deciding on a way forward.”

“We are thrilled that students at Fordham will finally be able to form a Students for Justice in Palestine club,” said Maria LaHood, the deputy legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, one of the organizations that represented the students in the lawsuit. “The students’ support for Palestinian rights and their demand to freely express that support truly exemplify Fordham’s stated values, unlike the administration’s shameful actions here.”

“The administration unfairly hindered my and my fellow classmates’ abilities to advocate for the human rights of Palestinians,” Ahmad Awad, one of the students who filed suit and the would-be president of the proposed Fordham SJP chapter, said in a statement. Awad graduated from Fordham in 2017.

"Although over 1,000 days have passed since we initiated the process for club status, I did not give up on my fight for human rights and free speech."

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Gay rights activists ask NCAA to intervene on Baylor's LGBTQ policies

Inside Higher Ed - News - August 7, 2019 - 5:00pm

Students and recent graduates of Baylor University, one of the country’s most prominent Baptist colleges, want the National Collegiate Athletic Association to examine the institution’s treatment of gay, transgender and queer students who say they have long faced discrimination on campus and in university policies.

These advocates wrote last month to Mark Emmert, the NCAA president, imploring the NCAA to investigate the university’s policies on LGBTQ issues. Most of those who signed the letter are officers of Gamma Alpha Upsilon (which spells out "GAY" in Greek letters), an LGBTQ student group that has sought official recognition from the university for eight years. Formally known as the Sexuality Identity Forum, the organization has been continually denied formal recognition, though the university has never publicly explained why.

The students assert in their letter that Baylor is the only member institution of the Big 12 Conference, one of the NCAA’s “Power 5” conferences, the most affluent and prestigious of the association's leagues, that “prohibits LGBTQ+ students from being officially recognized as part of the campus community.” Other major religious institutions in the Power 5 include University of Notre Dame and Boston College, both in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

A similar letter was sent to Big 12 Conference officials.

The authors of the letter to the NCAA also question whether Baylor complies with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the federal law barring sex discrimination on college campuses, which also provides protections for gay or gender-nonconforming students. The Trump administration more than two years ago withdrew guidance issued by the Obama administration that allowed transgender students to use bathrooms and other facilities that matched their gender identities.

Religious institutions can apply for exemptions from Title IX if they believe following the law would violate their religious beliefs. But, as the students note in the letter, Baylor has not sought such an exclusion from the law.

“On Baylor’s campus, LGBTQ+ students regularly face harassment and discrimination whether it consists of being called inflammatory names during walks to class or being physically unsafe and threatened,” the students wrote.

It is unclear how the NCAA could intervene in Baylor’s practices. The association has previously condemned laws that are prejudicial against LGBTQ people and said it would not hold playoff games in states with such laws on the books. But it has not gone as far as to cut ties with religious institutions that have Title IX waivers, as was demanded by gay rights groups several years ago.

Baylor spokeswoman Lori Fogleman provided a written statement on the university's behalf: "Baylor is committed to providing a loving and caring community for all students, including those who identify as LGBTQ. We believe that Baylor is in a unique position to meet the needs of our LGBTQ students because of our Christian mission and the significant campuswide support we already provide to all students."

The NCAA did not respond to a request for comment. A Big 12 Conference representative declined to comment.

Baylor in 2015 removed references from its conduct code that explicitly forbade “homosexual acts,” as well as eliminated parts of the code that deemed same-sex acts as “misuses of God’s gift.”

But the university maintains a “statement on human sexuality” that discourages students from participating in advocacy groups that “promote understandings of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching.” This would include “homosexual behavior,” according to the statement.

Gay rights advocates believe this statement is why Gamma Alpha Upsilon has not been accepted as an affiliated organization. Baylor’s rules on sexual conduct, which cite Baptist doctrine from 1963, also state that sexual intimacy must be “in the context of marital fidelity.”

A petition urging the Baylor administration to reconsider its refusal to formally recognize LGBTQ groups has gained more than 3,200 signatures since April. An opposing petition, advocating for Baylor to preserve its “traditions,” has also circulated on campus.

The opposition letter states that if Baylor officially chartered gay-friendly groups, it risked jeopardizing its long-standing affiliation with Baptist General Convention of Texas, the state representatives of the Baptist Church, from which the university receives millions of dollars in funding. The convention only recognizes heterosexual relationships.

Baylor’s Board of Trustees has declined to let Gamma Alpha Upsilon representatives speak during board meetings. Last month, board members heard a presentation by Janet B. Dean, an associate professor of psychology at Asbury University, a Christian institution in Kentucky, who has written about queer students’ experiences at religious colleges and universities, The Waco Tribune-Herald reported. Baylor president Linda Livingstone said that Dean’s appearance was beneficial for the board.

Activists remain frustrated that the trustees will not hear from them directly.

Tensions flared in April when a conservative group, Young Americans for Freedom, invited Matt Walsh, a right-wing blogger for The Daily Wire who holds antigay views, to campus. In promoting Walsh's appearance on campus, YAF, which the university granted formal recognition, posted fliers with an image of a hammer and sickle on a rainbow flag. The title of Walsh’s talk was “Why the Left Has Set Out to Redefine Life, Gender and Marriage.”

The Texas Tribune reported that the leader of the group said he did not intend to offend students and removed the posters, but by then many on campus were already enraged. A copy of the flier, the posting of which the university approved, was included in the letters to the NCAA and the Big 12.

“Baylor University officials approved inflammatory fliers … targeting LGBTQ+ people. This flier was posted throughout campus. Yet LGBTQ+ students are denied the ability to advertise or organize in any recognized way,” the students wrote.

Kyle Desrosiers, a rising senior at Baylor who identifies as gay, wrote in a column in the Tribune-Herald that the administration’s failure to protect him and students like him was “cruel.”

He described being harassed on campus for holding hands with his boyfriend and hearing classmates and professors make jokes about his sexuality in class.

“My experience is not unique,” he wrote. “This pain is shared among a sizable population at Baylor University. Trans and gender-nonconforming students face a far greater level of harassment and exclusion on campus. For many of us, experiences of alienation and marginalization result in a strain on our mental health. Worse, we are often afraid to turn to the Baylor Counseling Service or Title IX [office] for fear of losing academic and professional opportunities at Baylor.”

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Title IX emerges as top obstacle to higher ed law deal

Inside Higher Ed - News - August 6, 2019 - 5:00pm

For the past two years, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the chairman of the Senate education committee, has set ambitious goals for producing new landmark higher ed legislation.

But lawmakers never came close to reaching an agreement on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act last year. And as the August recess begins this week, there’s little sign of a deal coming together soon.

One of the biggest sticking points in negotiations, according to several individuals with knowledge of discussions, is addressing how colleges should handle complaints of sexual misconduct on campus. Specifically, members of the committee are discussing how language addressing live hearings for campus proceedings and cross-examination rights for accused students should figure into a bill. Federal guidance under the Obama administration discouraged cross-examination of complainants, but a proposal from the Trump administration would require colleges to allow it.

The issue has been among the most explosive pieces of the debate over federal policy on campus sexual assault. And how Congress should address it through legislation has become one of the most troubling parts of negotiations over a new HEA law.

A Democratic committee aide acknowledged that campus sexual misconduct is one of the biggest challenges to reaching a deal on HEA reauthorization. The aide said the focus of Washington senator Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the education committee, was finding creating a fair process that wouldn't re-traumatize survivors.

"Any proposal, any solution that has the potential to re-traumatize survivors is not something she's going to support," the aide said.

That could mean a number of options involving live hearings, although the aide acknowledged that Title IX is one of the areas where Republicans and Democrats are furthest apart.

Looming over those talks are federal regulations on campus handling of sexual misconduct that are expected to be finalized by the Trump administration later this fall. Recent court rulings, meanwhile, have faulted colleges for not following due process standards in Title IX proceedings.

A proposed rule released by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos last year would require that colleges allow students, through an advocate, to cross-examine their accusers. Ensuring accused students have an opportunity to question the allegations made against them has been a top priority of many due process champions. Advocates for sexual assault survivors, though, argue that cross-examination could discourage complainants from coming forward. And college groups have warned that imposing a requirement for live hearings for all misconduct cases would create a quasi-legal system on campuses and create a "cottage industry" of student advisers to assist in those hearings.

A ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit found last year that colleges must allow students accused of sexual assault, or their representatives, the chance to question their accusers. Some survivor advocates argue that other court rulings are clear that students accused of misconduct don't have the right to a process modeled on the criminal justice system. But the ruling has added impetus to groups arguing for more due process protections. 

Alexander's office didn't comment on the HEA discussions. But he made due process requirements, including cross-examination, a chief focus of a hearing on campus sexual misconduct policies in April.

Title IX isn’t the only major challenge for negotiators. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have indicated they’re eager to add new accountability standards for colleges. What those look like is far from settled, though. Alexander has proposed holding all higher ed programs to the same loan repayment standards. Democrats like Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy have argued for rules that account for the low-income populations served by colleges.

Negotiators will also have to settle how a new higher ed law will address college affordability. Murray said earlier this year she wanted a new law to include a state-federal partnership to boost funding for higher ed institutions.

But individuals plugged in to HEA discussions say Title IX could be the biggest obstacle for a deal. In a move that appeared to signal the difficulties surrounding the issue, Alexander and Murray earlier this summer formed a bipartisan Title IX working group, a development first reported by Bloomberg Government.

Shiwali Patel, senior counsel for education at the National Women’s Law Center, said the group has serious concerns about HEA legislation mandating a single process for all campuses to resolve complaints of sexual misconduct.

“These aren’t courtrooms,” she said. “How are schools going to ensure there are meaningful protections against inappropriate or victim-blaming questions?”

Patel said live hearings on misconduct allegations can be conducted properly with certain safeguards. Some, for example, have argued that allowing a third party to ask questions -- as allowed in the proposed regulations -- could address fears of re-traumatizing survivors. But Patel said not all colleges have the resources or capacity to effectively hold live hearings.

The Obama administration told colleges in federal guidance that they could opt to use a single-investigator model for Title IX cases, in which one official interviews both parties involved and collects other evidence before either making a decision about the alleged misconduct or presenting findings to a panel of campus officials. The proposed DeVos rule would ban that model and mandate live hearings.

Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, one of the biggest proponents of cross-examination rights for accused students, said lawmakers will have to reckon with recent court rulings on due process issues.

“Courts have been recognizing the importance of more procedural protections than has been the norm on college campuses,” he said.

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Study says authors exaggerate their findings in paper abstracts

Inside Higher Ed - News - August 6, 2019 - 5:00pm

We’ve all been told not to judge a book by its cover. But we shouldn’t be judging academic studies by their abstracts, either, according to a new paper in BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine. The study -- which found exaggerated claims in more than half of paper abstracts analyzed -- pertains to psychology and psychiatry research. It notes that “spin” is troublesome in those fields because it can impact clinical care decisions. But the authors say that this kind of exaggeration happens in other fields, too.

“Researchers are encouraged to conduct studies and report findings according to the highest ethical standards,” the paper says, meaning “reporting results completely, in accordance with a protocol that outlines primary and secondary endpoints and prespecified subgroups and statistical analyses.”

Yet authors are free to choose “how to report or interpret study results.” And in an abstract, in particular, they may include “only the results they want to highlight or the conclusions they wish to draw.”

In a word: spin.

Based on the idea that randomized controlled trials often inform how patients are treated, researchers used PubMed to find these kinds of studies. Their sample included those published from 2012-17 in well-regarded psychology and psychiatry journals: JAMA Psychiatry, American Journal of Psychiatry, Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Psychological Medicine, British Journal of Psychiatry and Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Crucially, they analyzed only trials with results that were not statistically significant, and therefore were susceptible to spin -- 116 in all.

Evidence of spin included focusing only on statistically significant results, interpreting nonsignificant results or equivalent, using favorable rhetoric with regard to the nonsignificant results and declaring that an intervention was beneficial despite its statistical insignificance.

How often did articles’ abstracts exaggerate the actual findings? More than half the time, or 56 percent. Spin happened in 2 percent of titles, 21 percent of abstract results sections and 49 percent of abstract conclusion sections. Fifteen percent of abstracts had spin in both their results and conclusion sections.

Spin was more common in studies that compared a proposed treatment with typical care or placebo than in other kinds of studies. But industry funding was not associated with a greater likelihood of exaggeration, as just 10 of 65 spun trials had any of this kind of funding.

The study notes several limitations, including that looking for spin is inherently subjective work. But it says that it’s important to guard against spin because researchers have an ethical obligation to honestly and clearly report their results and because spinning an abstract “may mislead physicians who are attempting to draw conclusions about a treatment for patients.” Physicians read only an article abstract, versus the entire article, a majority of the time, it says, citing prior research on the matter, and many editorial decisions are based on the abstract alone. Positive results are also more likely to be published in the first place, the paper notes, citing one study that found 15 percent of peer reviewers asked authors to spin their manuscripts.

What’s to be done? Journal editors may consider inviting reviewers to comment on the presence of spin, the article suggests.

Reporting guidelines also are used by several journals already to “ensure accurate and transparent reporting of clinical trial results, and the use of such guidelines improves trial reporting,” the paper says. While the recent Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials on abstracts don’t contain language discouraging spin, it says, “research reporting could be improved by discouraging spin in abstracts.”

Lead author Sam Jellison, a medical student at Oklahoma State University, underscored that his paper is not the first to explore academic spin. Yet making more readers “aware of what spin is might be the first and largest step to take to fight this problem,” he said. Jellison said that the existing literature suggests spin is not unique to psychology and psychiatry, and that those fields are actually “middle of the road” in terms of prevalence.

Philip Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland at College Park who blogs about research, pointed out that reviewers already look at abstracts as part of their process, so in addition to the journal editor, "reviewers should be able to see if the abstract is overstating the findings.”

Still, a common way that sociologists inflate research findings in general is to mention those that are not statistically significant while downplaying the lack of significance, attributing it to a small sample or using phrases such as “does not reach statistical significance,” he said, “as if the effect is just trying but can't quite get there.”

Beyond questions of spin, Cohen said there is surely a problem with “people only publishing, or journals only accepting, dramatic findings,” he said. So the greatest source of exaggeration is probably in what gets published at all, with null findings or those that contradict existing positive results never seeing the light of day -- what Cohen noted has been called the "file drawer" problem.

While psychology isn't alone in the spin room, the field has had its share of data integrity and public perception problems. A landmark study in 2015, for example, found that most psychology studies don’t yield reproducible results.

Brian Nosek, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and lead author on the reproducibility study, said that spin involves two “connected problems,” neither of which is easy to solve. Authors are “incentivized to present their findings in the best possible light for publishability and impact, and readers often don't read the paper.”

As an author, he said, “even if I want to avoid spin,” it’s “entirely reasonable for me to try make the narrative of my title and abstract as engaging as possible so that people will read the paper.” And at the same time, it’s “very difficult to capture the complexity of almost any research finding in a phrase or short abstract.” It’s really a “skill” to present “complex findings briefly without losing accuracy.”

As a reader, Nosek continued, “even if I want to make the best possible decisions based on research evidence, I don't have time to read and evaluate everything deeply." In some cases, he said, "I need to be able to trust that the information conveyed briefly is accurate and actionable.”

Ultimately, when “decisions are important, we should have higher expectations of readers to gather the information necessary to make good decisions,” he said. “But we need to recognize pragmatic realities and develop better tools for readers to calibrate the confidence in the claims they see in brief, and provide cues prompting them to dig more deeply when the evidence is uncertain.”

It’s also “in our collective interest to provide authors more training in communicating their findings in abstracts and press releases," Nosek added.

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Parents call fraternity, university negligent in string of 2016-17 suicides

Inside Higher Ed - News - August 6, 2019 - 5:00pm

The parents of two men who died by suicide and who were students at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., filed a lawsuit against the university and the Alpha Kappa Lambda fraternity July 31, maintaining that both were aware of their sons’ depression and suicidal tendencies and of the fellow fraternity member who allegedly encouraged them to end their lives.

The lawsuit is also against Brandon Grossheim, a former Truman State student and member of AKL’s Xi chapter at the university, whom the victims’ parents assert gave “step-by-step directions” to their sons and others on how to handle depression, including “advice on how to commit suicide,” according to the complaint, which cites six total counts of negligence and wrongful death. Grossheim allegedly had personal connections and contact with the two named victims, AKL members Alex Mullins and Josh Thomas, another unnamed AKL member and Truman State student, and two nonstudents, who also died by suicide between 2016 and 2017 in the Kirksville area.

Truman State “knew or should have known” Grossheim was a dangerous person because of statements he made, said Nicole Gorovsky, the families’ attorney. Grossheim called himself “peacemaker” and a “superhero,” and said that people who struggle with depression gravitate toward him, the complaint states. Other AKL members told police they had “problems” with Grossheim, and he was allegedly wearing one of the victims’ clothing after his death, the suit said.

“This tragedy was preventable,” said a statement from Gorovsky Law, the plaintiffs' lawyers.

Both Truman State and the national fraternity released statements after the complaint was filed, in which they disagreed with the allegations and said they will “vigorously” defend themselves against the lawsuit.

“As the litigation proceeds, it will become clear that the university is not responsible for the deaths of these students,” wrote Warren Wells, Truman State’s general counsel, in a statement.

Grossheim did not answer a request for comment made to the phone number associated with his Alton, Ill., address.

The University’s Duty

In order for Truman State to be held liable for the students’ deaths, there would need to be a clear opportunity and failure for the university to meet its “duty to prevent” the suicides, said Brett Sokolow, CEO and president of TNG, the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management Group.

The university or its counselors would have had to be aware that the students were acutely suicidal and had a high probability of taking their own lives, Sokolow said, or know of Grossheim’s “intent to aid and encourage” the victims toward suicide, as the lawsuit alleges. Even then, Mullins, Thomas and a third victim ended their lives at the AKL chapter house, which is owned by the fraternity’s national organization, The Kansas City Star reported, not the university, making it more difficult to blame Truman State, Sokolow said. Thomas did live in student housing prior to and at the time of his death, according to the suit, but his body was found in the AKL house. The two other victims also died off campus.

Gorovsky Law wrote that both Truman State and the fraternity’s national headquarters were aware that Mullins and Thomas suffered from depression and that the “situation had been swept under the rug.” The university allegedly held a “short symposium on suicide,” but details about Grossheim’s proximity to the deaths were not shared with parents or the public, Gorovsky wrote. Gorovsky was not able to provide the date of the symposium and did not know whether AKL members were in attendance.

Truman State’s public relations office could not immediately confirm details about the symposium, but if it did occur, this could be one way the university accomplishes its “duty to prevent,” Sokolow said. These events can provide information like symptoms of depression and suicide for students to be aware of and university or local mental health resources available to them.

Colleges and universities are typically aware of patterns of suicide on campus that occur within social groups, said Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. While it may be difficult for universities to know about a student’s specific intention or plan to take their own life, “if there’s a pattern of behavior in a particular group, you would think that the university would ramp up its programming.” (He was not commenting on the Truman State case specifically.)

Mullins and Thomas sought treatment through Truman State’s University Counseling Services before ending their lives, the complaint states. Mullins began having regular counseling sessions in February 2016, but he missed several appointments starting in June 2016. The university “emailed Mullins to follow up once or twice about his missed appointments but did not call him or otherwise make any attempt to reach out to him or do any welfare checks … [counseling services] simply closed Mullins’ file due to his no shows in early July 2016,” about one month prior to his death, the lawsuit states.

“Counseling centers don’t have the resources to track down every student,” Sokolow said. “A lot depends on how much the counselors knew and how dire it was for the student. At the end of the day, if the student is acutely suicidal and doesn’t want help, that is their choice. The counseling center can’t call them and say, ‘You have to show up’ -- they can’t make them come.”

As for Thomas, it was “common knowledge” in the AKL fraternity that he suffered from depression and that he received “professional counseling and mental health treatment through [Truman State],” according to the complaint. AKL members also knew Thomas was openly gay, which caused tension between him and others in the fraternity. Around the time of Thomas’s death, he texted one AKL member, “You’re the reason I want to kill myself,” and the two had a physical altercation, the complaint states. Thomas also attempted to end his life a month prior to his death, during the university’s spring break, which was “reported to the entire AKL fraternity.”

To implicate the fraternity, the plaintiffs would need to prove the property’s landlord was aware that members of the chapter and those living in the house were in danger, Sokolow said, but in cases like these, usually organizations are not involved. Rather, the person “prompting someone to suicide could be seen as doing harm.”

Brother-on-Brother Harm

Grossheim, 22, was last enrolled at Truman State in fall 2016, wrote Travis Miles, the university’s communications coordinator, in an email. He was not a student at the time of Thomas’s death in April 2017, but the two were “known to be close friends.” Grossheim resided at an off-campus apartment building at the time, the complaint states.

The three unnamed victims in the complaint -- another AKL fraternity member and two Kirksville residents in their early 20s, a man and woman -- also ended their own lives and allegedly had connections with Grossheim. In four of the five suicides near Truman State, Grossheim was the one to find the victims’ bodies or lead police to them, and Thomas’s body was found near a scrap of paper with Grossheim’s contact information on it, the lawsuit states.

According to the complaint, Grossheim was AKL’s “house manager” and had access to the rooms in the chapter house where the three AKL members were found dead. He was also allegedly the manager for his apartment building, where the fourth male victim lived. The Kansas City Star reported that Grossheim did not graduate and was not removed from the university. He now lives in Alton, Ill., according to court records.

“When Alex [Mullins] died, our hearts and our world split wide open; at college, in a ‘brotherhood,’ you think your kids are ‘safe and cared for,’” wrote Melissa Bottorff-Arey, Mullins’s mother, in a statement. “Within just months there were four more young people gone. There were too many similarities, one person in common and so many questions … It’s time for answers.”

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