Academic Freedom for the Southern Community

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OCTOBER 04, 2015

For someone who came into office passionate about K-12 issues, Arne Duncan will leave a big imprint on higher education. After nearly seven years as U.S. secretary of education, Mr. Duncan announced last week that he would step down in December.

During Mr. Duncan’s tenure, the department eliminated banks from the student-loan system, simplified the process of applying for financial aid, and expanded options for income-based repayment of student loans. It toughened regulations to curb recruiting abuses by for-profit colleges and aligned with the White House to push for greater consumer information in all sectors of higher education.

The way that students can obtain federal aid is now clearer, the terms for repaying student loans are more flexible, and information about colleges’ costs, their financial challenges, and their students’ outcomes is easier to find.

It’s no surprise, then, that assessments of the secretary tend to include the terms “accountability” and “transparency.”

Many observers credit Mr. Duncan, 50, with changing the culture of the department. “He presided over a really crucial shift,” said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, an advocacy group, “from a focus on schools and lenders to a focus on students and borrowers.”

By all accounts, Mr. Duncan has deferred to colleagues on the details of most higher-education policy making. But he was more than ready to personally upbraid colleges over rising prices and low graduation rates, their handling of cases of sexual assault, their lax academic standards for athletes in big-time programs, and their resistance to greater oversight — often to the discomfort of higher-education leaders accustomed to Democratic secretaries of education who promised more money and fewer questions…read more

When it comes to reforming remedial education, everyone, it seems, is eager to get in on the act.

One problem, according to a pair of studies being released this week, is that the state lawmakers and higher-education-system leaders who are prescribing sweeping curricular changes don’t always collaborate enough with professors and administrators. When communication breaks down, mistrust and misunderstanding can derail progress.

Two states — Connecticut and Tennessee — are being offered up this week as case studies of some of the promising practices and occasional missteps that reformers from different worlds are making as they overhaul the way remedial, or developmental, classes are provided.

On Friday the American Council on Education will host a meeting to debate those state-level efforts and to suggest how states can smooth out the bumps when changes are underway. The event, and the research behind it, is sponsored by the Lumina Foundation.

One thing everyone agrees on is that too few students who start out in developmental education end up graduating. But why that’s the case is a matter of debate: Is it because those students are more likely to be disadvantaged and from low-performing schools to begin with? Or because there’s something inherently discouraging about being placed in remedial more

“Why do we need to write that down? We’ve done it that way for years!”

Well, yes. But if you get hauled into court, you’ll wish you had written it down.

The case of the University of Kansas student whose tweets initially got him expelled,until the expulsion was overturned on appeal, is just the latest lesson. The short version is that the student in question apparently tweeted some pretty awful comments about an ex-girlfriend who was also a student there. The University expelled him, fearing a “hostile environment” claim — understandably — but did so under a policy that didn’t really speak to the case. He won on appeal, not because the tweets were misinterpreted, but because the policy was.  

This is why administrators sometimes insist on what seems like pedantry. Well-crafted guidelines written in advance and followed conscientiously are far easier to stand on in court.  

Obviously, there are limits to what can be reasonably anticipated. Seinfeld fans will remember when George Costanza had sex with the cleaning woman on his desk at the office, and got fired for it. When confronted, he said there wasn’t a rule specifically forbidding sex with the cleaning woman on his desk. No rule can anticipate everything, and it’s unreasonable to ask it to. Some elasticity in language is necessary in order to prevent absurdity. And any rule with elastic language will lend itself to some level of judgment. Even well-drawn borders won’t eliminate borderline cases.

But if you can base the judgment calls on something written and relatively specific, you’re much less likely to lose when challenged. You’re also much less likely to fall into decisionmaking based on your own biases, conscious or unconscious. The awkwardness of explicit rules can take them out of knee-jerk intuition territory. Sometimes, that’s good.  Intuitions hide many sins…read more

By Sarah Brown

While preparing an essay for a women’s-studies course, a student writes a sentence using the word “mankind” to describe human beings. The student uses the word without thinking.

But the professor makes a note on the paper, pointing out that the structure of “mankind” is flawed because it assumes the male gender. The professor doesn’t penalize the usage, but indicates that the student should make a habit of using “humankind” instead, to emphasize that the meaning is gender-neutral.

This hypothetical situation illustrates a topic that has recently drawn intense scrutiny on college campuses. A number of conservative-leaning media outlets have taken aim at professors who incorporate guidelines for students’ use of language in their teaching, in the form of statements on course syllabi or in-class requests.

Some professors say encouraging students to employ gender-neutral and inclusive terms in their speaking and writing can be important when language is a fundamental part of the curriculum. Those practices can be especially useful, they say, when historically marginalized perspectives are up for discussion, such as in gender- or ethnic-studies more

September 29, 2015

Non-tenure-track, full-time faculty tend to like, and dislike, their jobs about as much as their tenure-track and tenured colleagues do, according to a new study published in the journal Education Policy Analysis Archives.

As nontenured positions continue their steady growth, authors Molly Ott and Jesus Cisneros point out, little research exists examining the work lives and job satisfaction of these professors. And some of what is out there may wrongly rely on a conception of nontenured faculty members as transient laborers rather than professionals with a link to an institution. Ott is assistant professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University. Cisneros is assistant professor of college student personnel services and administration at the University of Central Arkansas.

“Our results suggest being removed from the tenure track is not associated with faculty viewing their jobs in a substantially different (or inferior) way than those in tenure-line positions,” they write to sum up their findings. “Generally, we found full-time [non-tenure-track] faculty share common views of their jobs and working conditions with tenure-line faculty.”

Ott and Cisneros, in “Understanding the Changing Faculty Workforce in Higher Education: A Comparison of Non-Tenure-Track and Tenure-Line Experiences,” begin with the assumption that all full-time faculty members — on the tenure track or not — “share common attributes and experiences that influence their job outcomes…read more

By Goldie Blumenstyk

Only half of 30,000 college alumni polled for the Gallup-Purdue Index strongly agreed that their higher education was worth the cost, according to the results of the second annual national survey, being published on Tuesday.

Among recent graduates, the proportion who were unequivocally positive was even lower: only 38 percent of those graduating from 2006 through 2015.

The overall results did not differ widely depending on the kind of institution attended — except when it came to alumni of for-profit colleges. Only 26 percent of those alumni strongly agreed that their postsecondary education was worth the cost. And 13 percent strongly disagreed that it was worth it, a proportion that was notably higher than the national average of 4 percent…read more

By Dan Berrett

A new study that examined thousands of examples of student work in nine states may give professors, administrators, policy makers, and the public better tools to systematically understand what students are actually learning in college.

At least that’s what the supporters hope of the research effort, the results of which were released on Thursday.

“Proof of concept is what it is,” said Julie M. Carnahan, a vice president at the State Higher Education Executive Officers, an association that led the project, called the Multi-State Collaborative to Advance Learning Outcomes Assessment, with the Association of American Colleges and Universities. “We have proved that this is an alternative to standardized tests.”

That alternative is a set of rubrics, or grids, that stake out common standards for faculty members to use to evaluate student assignments. The project seeks to unify two ideals: preserving professorial authority over the assigning and grading of student work, and tying such work to norms that can be judged externally and consistently across courses, institutions, and states.

The project began in response to two concerns that have preoccupied leaders of state systems of higher education in recent years, Ms. Carnahan said. Employers and policy makers have complained that newly hired college graduates often lack the problem-solving skills needed in today’s workplace. At the same time, many states have been basing university funding in part on a set of performance measures, but those formulas have used metrics of academic quality, like graduation rates, that faculty members and college administrators have seen as too blunt and too subject to external forces.

Some states use students’ scores on standardized tests, like the Collegiate Learning Assessment and the ETS Proficiency Profile, in their funding formulas. Those tests can provide external standards that allow students and institutions to be compared according to common criteria, but such assessments are unconnected to the curriculum and their results are seen as flawed because students have little incentive to try to score well on the tests. Course grades are often authentic indicators of what students do, but they are also subject to inflation, the whims of instructors, and the differing norms of institutions…read more

The faculty union at Rock Valley College voted Monday night to end a strike that started last week, and to accept a compromise contract proposed by a federal mediator.

Classes will resume today at the Illinois community college. Details of the new contract will be released after a meeting tonight, when the college’s board is expected to formally approve the contract.

“We are ready to get back to our classrooms and return to the work we love,” said a statement from Michael Youngblood, an economics professor and president of the Rock Valley College Faculty Association, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.

The strike was called over a series of issues, but primarily over health care costs.

In a seven-minute YouTube video, a life sciences professor, Rebecca Maas, outlined in a series of graphs, charts and monotone voiceover how the higher health care charges to employees proposed by the college could negate the also-proposed salary bump. The video was prepared before the settlement…read more

September 22, 2015

Back in 2012, massive open online courses entered public consciousness accompanied by grand promises of revolution. MOOC proponents, often backed by private venture capital, promised to make higher education more nimble and accessible than ever before. Three years in, at least, it hasn’t worked out that way. Our own assessment is that MOOC mania brought lots of hype, promising technology, some compelling if nascent science and broader recognition of a huge problem that no silver bullet can solve.

Our own university began encouraging new experiments with online learning in 2012. Two of us were at Stanford then, helping to produce massive open online courses based on recorded video lectures, multiple-choice questions and audience discussion, conveyed via the Internet to millions of people at no cost to them.

Faculty members responded enthusiastically. By 2013 a new campus operation was created to support online instruction. It helped our faculty produce 171 online offerings, including 51 free public MOOCs offered repeatedly, reaching nearly two million learners.

No doubt about it, we contributed to MOOC mania. Here’s what we learned…read more

Nearly one in four female undergraduates responding to a survey conducted by the Association of American Universities said that they had been the victim of sexual assault or misconduct, according to eagerly anticipated findings released on Monday.

At the same time, fewer than a third of the respondents reported the incidents, even when they involved rape, to campus or local authorities. The most common reason? The students who didn’t come forward didn’t feel their experiences were serious enough to warrant such a report.

At first glance, the association’s report on its survey would seem to validate the one-in-five figure that other studies have found for the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses. But most of those previous studies arrived at that statistic looking only at rape and attempted rape, according to several sexual-assault experts interviewed on Monday. The AAU reached that number by including other behaviors, including unwanted touching and kissing…read more