Academic Freedom for the Southern Community

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With President Obama promising to release his controversial college-rating plan this fall, college leaders are on high alert. They worry that they’ll look bad, that they’ll be judged unfairly, and that the plan will have a host of unintended consequences.

But if recent history is any guide, they needn’t be so nervous. Time and again, when confronted with criticism from colleges, this administration has softened its stance or bent the rules to accommodate them. In the end, it has almost always arrived at a position that colleges (for-profits excepted) could live with, if not exactly embrace.

This fall alone, the Education Department relaxed its criteria for awarding PLUS loans, spared some colleges with high student-loan default rates, and scrapped an unpopular metric in its “gainful employment” rule. In each case, the change made more colleges, or more borrowers, eligible for federal student aid.

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Ageism in Academe

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Senior faculty. It sounds like an honorific. It isn’t. It’s more a sort of stigmata. Being called “senior faculty” stigmatizes you. I’m called “senior faculty” quite a lot.

I have been teaching journalism for 33 years, 29 at the same college. My career in academe, begun with innocent hopes and fearsome ambitions, is nearing its obvious end. I expect to be bid farewell in the style to which I have been made accustomed. Notable work anniversaries—10, 15, 20, 25 years—all passed unacknowledged by my institution.

Are there benefits to being senior faculty? Of course, there are. The exhausting struggle for tenure, and later for promotions, are far behind me. I can remember feeling anxious and driven all the time. Now I just feel anxious occasionally.

Although not about teaching. No. Never about teaching.

A popular stereotype portrays senior faculty as doddering, if not downright demented, and content to teach from old, crumbling lecture notes. Lecture notes! I can act demented without them, thank you, if that’s what’s necessary to make a point in class.

To me, the single greatest benefit of being a senior faculty member is the confidence that comes with 30-plus years in the classroom. When I began teaching, I clung to my lecture notes with the sweaty desperation of an alcoholic clinging to a glass. They were what I had instead of confidence—or a stiff drink.

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November 17, 2014 – 9:12pm

This post is the first in a four-part series on MOOC research at Davidson College. We begin with the rationale for our research design and will follow with posts about our planning process, implementation and results.

This past spring I had the privilege of talking with Fiona Hollands, Associate Director and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She and Devayani Tirthali published a cost-benefit study of MOOC experiments that is a must-read for college administrators overseeing existing or future MOOC initiatives. Two leading goals for the 29 institutions interviewed include expanding access to higher education and improving economics through lowered costs or increased revenues. The Columbia team’s research suggests, however, that the likelihood MOOCs will achieve either of these goals is unclear.

In contrast, improving educational outcomes, fostering innovation and conducting learning research are the least cited reasons for creating MOOCs. I believe these lesser goals may in fact prove to be the areas where we see the greatest benefits on our campuses. The first two are anchored by the third—research will help us understand how we can improve educational outcomes and advance innovation through iteration.

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Tangled in Red Tape

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Norwich University hired Nick Cooper, a lawyer, three years ago to help its distance-learning program navigate a complex, ever-changing landscape of state regulation. To the Vermont institution, he is essential—the only person standing between it and a regulatory misstep that could shut down a degree program in Massachusetts, cost the university thousands in Wisconsin, even get the president slapped with a misdemeanor in Alabama.

In blunt moments, Mr. Cooper concedes a Sisyphean weariness. Over the past three years Norwich has spent nearly half a million dollars dealing just with state regulations through his office. In the process, while working to set up online programs across the country, he has amassed maddening stories, like the year he spent trying to reach someone in Oregon who would sign off on courses, or the times he had to fly to Arkansas for routine Board of Education meetings, where officials would ask no substantial questions before rubber-stamping Norwich’s programs.

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Lifetime residents of Maine tend to look askance at people who are “from away,” an epithet reserved for transplants, summer vacationers, and college students. Such people might mean well, the thinking goes, but ultimately they do not belong.

Bowdoin College, a 220-year-old institution in Brunswick, Me., takes a similarly protective view of its curriculum. At a time when online education has blurred campus borders—and institutions face growing pressure to train students for specific jobs—Bowdoin and many other liberal-arts colleges have held the line. When I matriculated there, a decade ago, Bowdoin didn’t even have online course registration. (The college finally added it last year.)

So it was a significant move last week when Bowdoin decided to offer, in the spring, a partly online course in financial accounting led by a professor at Dartmouth College’s business school.

As many as 50 Bowdoin students will take the course, for credit, from the Maine campus. The Dartmouth professor, Phillip C. Stocken, will teach largely from his post in New Hampshire, holding weekly class sessions and office hours online. Meanwhile, an economics professor at Bowdoin will lead weekly face-to-face sessions on its campus. Bowdoin will pay $60,000 for the course—significantly less than it would cost to develop a course “of this quality” from scratch, according to Scott Hood, a spokesman.

Not surprisingly, the Dartmouth course has met with resistance from some faculty members at Bowdoin; 21 professors voted against the decision to offer it as a one-semester pilot.

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Administrators at a Florida community college are leaning on faculty and student journalists to prevent coverage of an ongoing labor dispute.

In doing so, they are adopting a questionable interpretation of Florida law that could be used to squelch student journalism in high schools and colleges across the Sunshine State.

Administrators at the 11,000-student Pensacola State College have told faculty members they are violating state law by speaking with student journalists about contract negotiations, which are currently at an impasse.

In response, the faculty union said the administrators are harassing union members. An editor at the student newspaper said the college’s president is also lying about the paper’s reporting.

Administrators at Pensacola are using a section of state code that has been ruled unconstitutional by both a state and a federal court. The code is intended to prohibit unions from using students to promote union activities. If Pensacola’s reading of the law is heeded, the administration’s effort could provide a way to choke off student reporting on labor disputes at educational institutions across the state.

Most journalists would argue that quoting union officials is not equivalent to promoting their cause.

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Professors have long made assumptions about their place in the classroom.

They have seen themselves as the experts whose job is to transmit a body of knowledge, typically through a lecture. Students are there to absorb content. If they fail, it’s their fault.

The lecture hall expresses that dynamic physically. Seats—sometimes hundreds of them—are arranged in raked rows facing a spot for the professor who, like the featured act in a show, is the only one in the room doing anything worth paying attention to.

After years of exhortations for faculty members to become guides on the side instead of sages on stage, those assumptions are shifting, and they carry consequences that could be significant for professors and students.

“Nationally, we’re seeing more of a move to student-centered teaching,” said Kevin Eagan, an assistant professor in residence at the University of California at Los Angeles. He is also interim managing director of the Higher Education Research Institute, which produces a triennial faculty survey that was released on Thursday.

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When the president of a university is dragged from his bed in the middle of the night and shot point-blank in his garden by an elite squad of the national military, we must pause to ask why.

This month the Universidad Centroamericana in El Salvador, known as UCA, will be commemorating the 25th anniversary of the killings of eight people on its campus, including six Jesuit priests: the president, vice president, and leading faculty members. Universities—especially those of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities—will be sending delegations to San Salvador for a range of events to remember these martyrs.

When the killings occurred I was a young Jesuit studying Literae Humaniores at Oxford. The news came in the form of a short notice posted on a bulletin board in the hall. I was angry and outraged that they had been murdered. In another sense, however, I felt proud—proud that academics mattered so much and that the leader of a university could be a threat to the Salvadoran army. But most of all I was moved by the example of courage. In the privileged context of an elite English university, I was inspired to think that on the other side of the world there were professors who lived and died for what they believed.

Throughout the lengthy civil war in El Salvador, the Rev. Ignacio Ellacuria, president of UCA, placed the work of the university within the larger struggle of the country—what he called the “social reality.” Ellacuria was committed to a “preferential option for the poor.” A university, he believed, had to lend intellectual support to those who did not possess academic qualifications to legitimize their rights. More challenging for those of us in the academy is his conviction in the responsibility of academe: “A university is inescapably a social force: It must transform and enlighten the society in which it lives.”

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While a faculty member’s primary roles may be teaching and research, it isn’t unusual for students to use professors as a sounding board for personal problems, even serious ones like rape. New rules on many campuses, however, now mean that if students confide in faculty members about a sexual assault, the professors are required to report the information to college officials.

That change in the way campuses are interpreting faculty responsibilities under the gender-equity law known as Title IX makes some professors uneasy. They say they are often on the front lines when it comes to students’ venting about both their academic struggles and their private lives. In some cases, students even write about deeply personal issues as part of course assignments.

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A federal appeals court has ruled that the First Amendment protected an adjunct instructor’s public complaints about how her employer, an Illinois community college, deals with people in her position.

In a decision handed down on Thursday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit unanimously held that the First Amendment precluded Moraine Valley Community College from firing Robin Meade, a part-time business instructor and adjunct-union head, for telling an international organization that her college mistreats adjuncts in ways that hurt students’ education.

The sort of retaliation alleged in Ms. Meade’s lawsuit is a common fear among adjunct instructors, who lack tenure and, at most colleges, can be removed simply by being denied work in the future. Such retaliation appears especially likely to be directed at adjunct instructors with union-leadership positions, which put them at odds with administrators. At the time of her dismissal, in August 2013, Ms. Meade had been president of the Moraine Valley Adjunct Faculty Organization, a union affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.

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