Academic Freedom for the Southern Community

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The question of which colleges serve low-income students well has gotten a lot of attention this year, thanks in part to a White House summit, in January, and a new spin oncollege rankings, released by The New York Times this month. But it’s hardly a new line of inquiry—Stephen Burd has been thinking about it since he worked at The Chronicle in a job pretty similar to mine back in the 1990s.

Mr. Burd has continued to track the issue at the New America Foundation, where he is a senior policy analyst in the education-policy program. On Wednesday the think tank will release the second installment of “Undermining Pell,” Mr. Burd’s look at colleges’ shares of low-income students and the prices those students pay.

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Some MOOC skeptics believe that the only students fit to learn in massive open online courses are those who are already well educated. Without coaching and the support system of a traditional program, the thinking goes, ill-prepared students will not learn a thing.

Not so, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The researchers analyzed data from a physics course that MIT offered on the edX platform in the summer of 2013. They found that students who had spent significant time on the course showed evidence of learning no matter what their educational background.

“There was no evidence that cohorts with low initial ability learned less than the other cohorts,” wrote the researchers in a paper published this month by The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning.

Not only that, but the MOOC students learned at a similar rate as did MIT students who had taken the on-campus version of a similar course. That finding surprised the researchers because the on-campus MIT students studied together in small groups for four hours every week and had regular access to their professors and other campus resources.

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By  August 20, 2014

Northern Illinois University (NIU) has enacted a stunningly restrictive network use policy and is enforcing it through a filter that blocks or tags websites based on content—including speech clearly protected by the First Amendment.

NIU’s policy is in the news after one NIU student posted to Reddit a “Web Page Access Warning” he received while trying to visit the Wikipedia page about the Westboro Baptist Church from his dorm room. Betabeat reported on this and other student experiences with the filter, criticizing the public university for blocking access to a wide range of online expression.

The warning received by the Reddit user categorizes the Westboro Baptist Church’s Wikipedia page as “Illegal or Unethical.” While the warning appears to allow the student to click through to view the page, it notes that the URL the student is trying to access “has been recorded for review” and ominously states that “[u]nless you are accessing this site for legitimate business purposes, it is highly probable that the access would violate the Northern Illinois Acceptable Use Policy.” Betabeat reports that other websites are permanently blocked to NIU students.

Whether students are prohibited from visiting a website altogether or simply greeted by this bizarre threat of punishment, NIU’s enforcement of its policy is an egregious act of censorship.

As if there weren’t enough to consider when deciding to accept an academic job, there’s something new to add to the list: the offer’s stability.

Earlier this month the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign grabbed headlines when it revoked a written job offer to Steven G. Salaita, a professor who drew accusations of incivility for his fierce Twitter commentary about Israel. You’ve probably heard about the case several times over by now, but if not, here’s a quick recap: Salaita, an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, was offered a tenured professorship in American Indian studies at Illinois, subject to approval by the university’s Board of Trustees. He gave notice to Virginia Tech and was expected to begin work at the Urbana-Champaign campus last week.

At the start of August—once the controversial tweets had drawn attention—Phyllis M. Wise, the campus’s chancellor, and Christophe Pierre, the university system’s vice president for academic affairs, told him in a letter they would not bring his appointment before the board, as “an affirmative board vote approving your appointment is unlikely.”

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August 20, 2014

Higher education consultants tend to project savings beyond what colleges can achieve, sometimes don’t understand the complexities of the institutions they advise, and fail to appreciate the politics around the changes they propose, according to a new study by the Education Advisory Board.

The group, a business that produces research for colleges on some of the same issues on which some institutions hire consultants, did a detailed analysis of cost-reduction efforts at 21 different colleges and universities that hired outside consultants.

Consultants had told those institutions they could, on average, save up to 4 percent of their operating costs if their recommendations were adopted.

The colleges, the study found, saved far less. On many campuses that have hired consultants or considered doing so, faculty leaders have questioned the cost and relative benefits of such arrangements.

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A man in Fort Worth recently offered his friends advice on Twitter: “Do not go to college for a major in liberal arts you will have no job!!” Soon after, a Twitter account he’d probably never heard of called his tweet a myth. “FACT: The unemployment rate of liberal arts majors is roughly the same as most other majors,” said a follow-up tweet, which linked to a report with more information.

The intervention came from a Twitter account fronted by two cartoon characters who swoop in whenever the value of the liberal arts is besmirched on Twitter: “Libby,” an auburn-haired student, and “Art,” a bespectacled, tweed-wearing counselor.

Libby and Art’s tweets are one prong of a public-information campaignorganized by the Council of Independent Colleges to respond to a rush of “really negative, incorrect, factless stories,” about college affordability and outcomes, says Laura Wilcox, the association’s vice president for communications.

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Professors Joyce Tolliver and Nick Burbules of the University of Illinois in their Sunday, Aug. 17, op-ed, “Salaita case calls for honest debate,” support the firing of tenured Associate Professor Steven G. Salaita. However, as chair of Illinois American Association of University Professors Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, I wish to offer a different viewpoint.

They claim it is speculative to assert that Professor Steven Salaita was fired due to his comments on the Israel/Palestinian conflict: “There is, at this point, no evidence that this is the case.”

Then they undermine their stunning claim by asserting that “the real issue is with the form and substance of Salaita’s comments.”

Academic freedom requires that both substance and form are protected speech when engaging in extramural utterances. It does not differentiate between the two. It is, in fact, impossible to separate the rhetoric style from the topic. The former gives vitality and expressive force to the latter.

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Colleges navigated a time of transition over the past year in whom they employ and how those employees work.

The digital age continued to put new pressures on colleges and their employees, testing age-old policies on academic freedom and fueling further experimentation with nontraditional models of education.

Scores of faculty members discovered how quickly their words can go viral, and their lives be thrown into turmoil, because of the ease and speed with which students and others can share messages and videos across the Internet. In 2013-14, those faculty members included professors whose provocative statements in the classroom were surreptitiously videotaped by students and posted online, professors who vented frustrations on Facebook or Twitter and then watched their posts quickly spread to a wide audience, and professors whose work-related websites were combed by advocacy groups for evidence of the political indoctrination of students.

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An adjunct professor at the Corcoran College of Art and Design who co-founded an organization opposing its merger with George Washington University has been fired, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Jayme McLellan is a co-founder of Save the Corcoran, which launched a legal challenge to the merger of the institutions as well as the absorption of the Corcoran Gallery of Art into the National Gallery of Art. Hearings on the matter ended Wednesday. Ms. McLellan was fired Thursday, the Times says.

“This is clearly retaliation,” Ms. McLellan said in an interview with the Times. A spokesman for Peggy Loar, Corcoran’s interim director and president, told the newspaper, “We don’t respond to requests regarding individual personnel decisions.”

The Corcoran’s financial troubles have motivated the merger, which has been in the worksfor months. A judge ruled last month that a group of students and faculty members could argue against the merger in court. The judge, Robert Okun of the District of Columbia Superior Court, is expected to issue a ruling on the plan by August 20.