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Academic Freedom for the Southern Community

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By November 18, 2014

On his philosophy news site Daily Nous, University of South Carolina associate professor Justin Weinberg responded today to a blog post I wrote about hostility towards certain viewpoints at Marquette University. In his post, Weinberg argued that graduate student Cheryl Abbate was the “target of a political attack” by one of her students and that she was simply abiding by Marquette’s harassment policy, not censoring student speech, when she told him certain viewpoints weren’t welcome. Weinberg’s reasoning is flawed on several levels.

To review: A student in Abbate’s ethics class objected to her allegedly stating that “everybody agrees” on the issue of gay rights, so “there is no need to discuss it.” After class, he approached her and recorded a conversation with her in which she defended the exclusion of particular viewpoints from the classroom because they might “offend” students.

Weinberg argues that Abbate was simply controlling the scope of the classroom discussion, as all instructors must do. He writes that during the next class after the recorded incident, Abbate “noted that class time is limited.” Yet, in the recorded conversation, Abbate repeatedly cites the offensiveness of certain types of statements in declaring them “not appropriate” for the classroom. Here is a partial transcript of the student’s recording:

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The revolt of Connecticut state university professors against a transformative plan developed by a high-priced consultant and backed by the administration has grabbed headlines recently, but it’s a showdown that has been repeated elsewhere across the country.

As state college systems like Connecticut’s struggle with shrinking state dollars, declining or flat enrollment, and a demand that tuition be kept under control, leaders are hungry for strategic plans that will help ensure a healthy future in the dramatically changing world of higher education.

But as has happened in other states, professors in the Connecticut State Colleges and University system contend that the plan — called Transform CSCU 2020 — appeared to be more about streamlining and cost-efficiencies than about improving the educational experience for students. The professors pushed backed forcefully, saying it lacked academic focus, and refused to endorse it in its current form.
“Certainly, this scenario has arisen in multiple states in recent months and will do so increasingly,” said Daniel Hurley, an associate vice president with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “There will be an appropriate and natural tension inherent in the process.

“I think it’s logical and rational for the faculty to cast a wary eye. There is always the fear that higher education is going to be increasingly seen as solely a business enterprise … as opposed to the broader aspects of what colleges and universities embrace with teaching, learning, research and service.”

On the other hand, Hurley said, from a leadership perspective there is a desire to “react and change in response to the multitude of forces out there that are really demanding change in higher education.”

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(HARTFORD, CT) – Governor Dannel P. Malloy today announced that two new integrated high school and college programs in Windham and New London will launch in the fall of 2015. Modeled after IBM’s much heralded Pathways in Technology Early College High School programs (P-TECH), the Connecticut Early College Opportunity (CT-ECO) programs are Grade 9-14 experiences that allow students to earn an associate degree in addition to a high school diploma.
 
“At the ribbon cutting for the NECA program I promised to work with other major employers to replicate this model elsewhere in the state, and today we’re doing just that,” said Governor Malloy. “When we give students the chance to learn science and technology, we give them the skills that employers are looking for, and help pull our workforce into the 21st Century.”
 
At the direction of Governor Malloy, the Department of Education, the Department of Economic and Community Development, and the Board of Regents are collaborating on this initiative to better prepare students for college and careers while developing a skilled workforce that meets the needs of local employers.  In September of 2014, Norwalk Public schools opened the state’s first CT-ECO program, Norwalk Early College Academy (NECA)—a  partnership with IBM and Norwalk Community College.
 
CT-ECO will provide students with an opportunity to access higher education affordably and addresses the critical skills gap that local industries are facing. “Early College programs like CT-ECO are game changers for our state. They break down the silos between high schools, community colleges and the world of work, allowing students to access post-secondary credentials and avoid the need for remediation and close the skills gap,” said President of the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education Dr. Gregory Gray.
 
CT-ECO builds upon the Governor’s commitment to student success and economic health by aligning K-12, college and the workforce.  “By providing the opportunity to experience college-level material while in high school, early college programs offer students a head start on success in their post-secondary education and in their careers. CT-ECO integrates real-world workplace experiences, meaningful mentorships, and rigorous academics—an approach that makes sense and should be expanded,” said Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor.

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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