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Transgender Employees Sue Wisconsin System

The University of Wisconsin System is being sued by two of its transgender employees because the system and the state insurance board will no longer cover gender reassignment surgeries, The Associated Press reported.

Both employees identify as female and work at the Madison campus, one as an anthropology graduate student and the other as a cancer researcher. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit last week on their behalf.

Because both employees are on the university’s health insurance plan and that plan no longer covers medical procedures surrounding gender dysphoria -- the condition in which someone feels they were born into the body of the wrong sex -- they are accusing the university and insurance board of discrimination by sex and gender.

“Too many transgender people continue to face discrimination in all facets of life, including health care access, and so I felt compelled to stand up and try to do something about it,” one of the plaintiffs, Alina Boyden, said in a news release.

Last summer, the state’s insurance board added benefits for gender dysphoria that could account for up to $150,000, but in December, before the benefits went into effect, the board voted to exclude the benefits.

Both plaintiffs have been advised by their primary care physicians to seek gender reassignment surgery. Without coverage under their university insurance plans, they would either have to opt out of the procedures or pay thousands of dollars out of pocket.

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Lack of Comma May Derail Georgia Gun Bill

Georgia Governor Nathan Deal may be poised to sign new legislation to permit guns on college campuses this week, but the absence of a comma in a provision excluding some campus locations from legal firearms may have legal implications, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.

Deal vetoed the campus carry bill last year after lawmakers chose not to honor his request that the measure make exceptions for certain areas of campus. However, the House and Senate recently compromised and approved a bill that would permit guns on campus but bar them in child care facilities, certain faculty and administrative offices, and spaces used to hold disciplinary discussions.

Although the new version of the gun measure is more in line with what Deal requested about a year ago, a Democratic aide identified a grammatical error that may stand in the way of the governor’s signature.

One of the exemptions is written to say that the bill does “not apply to faculty, staff, or administrative offices or rooms where disciplinary proceedings are conducted.”

The aide, Stefan Turkheimer, wrote on GeorgiaPol.com that the absence of a comma after the word “offices” could change the application of the legislation. The bill is meant to exclude “faculty, staff or administrative offices” as well as “rooms where disciplinary proceedings are conducted,” but as Turkheimer said, “without that comma, it’s just two clauses both modifying ‘offices or rooms.’”

He goes on: “This reading becomes even more persuasive when you consider that both of these area exceptions, if they were meant to be separate, could, and perhaps should, have been put into different clauses. … So unless faculty offices are also rooms where 'disciplinary hearings are conducted,' they would not be exempted. Let’s just ignore whether these rooms are off-limits only when they are being used for disciplinary hearings or whether they are off-limits from carrying at all times because sometimes they host disciplinary meetings (makes less sense, but that’s what the bill says).”

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Senators Want Pell Eligibility for Dual Enrollment

A bipartisan proposal in the U.S. Senate would open up Pell Grants to low-income students who earn college credits while still enrolled in high school.

The bill introduced last week by Senator Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican, and Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, would allow Pell Grant funding for transferable college credits, including general-education requirements, that students complete in an early-college program offered by an accredited institution. The proposed legislation comes as Republicans increasingly have voiced support for dual-enrollment and early-college programs.

“While wages have been largely flat over the past 10 years, the average cost of college tuition and fees at national universities has more than doubled,” Portman said in a written statement. “A lot of families are feeling squeezed, and for kids from low-income households, college can feel out of reach. Our legislation would let them get a head start on college, make it more affordable for them and help them get on track to live out their dreams.”

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Lack of IRS data tool may harm FAFSA application rates and already is hurting students

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Researchers say removal of an IRS tool for financial aid applicants may have slowed FAFSA submissions, while college aid groups warn that affected students could already be losing out on aid.

Essay: Improving student success may mean fixing subpar courses

Not long ago, San Francisco investor and entrepreneur John Greathouse penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal claiming he found a solution to the tech industry’s diversity problem. Because of rampant bias in the tech industry, Greathouse suggested female job candidates should “create an online presence that obscures their gender” in order to improve their employment prospects.

The response was swift and vicious. Concealing one’s gender in response to bias addresses the symptom rather than the disease (biased hiring managers/employers and biased hiring practices). Greathouse, critics contend, offered a “Band-aid”: a superficial and ephemeral solution that avoids dealing with a deep-seated systemic challenge.

The temptation to optimize the path that people take through dysfunctional systems isn’t, of course, limited to hiring practices. It is a familiar pattern in a higher education discourse obsessed with predictive analytics -- one that all too often avoids tough conversations about poor instruction and outdated pedagogy.

This temptation to fix people rather than dysfunctional systems reminded me of current conversations in education technology around how new technologies can improve student success. Specifically, the interplay between two powerful new approaches: predictive analytics and adaptive learning technologies.

Using predictive analytics as an early warning system to predict which student is likely to fail is becoming commonplace. The goal is as clear as it is noble: reduce the number of college dropouts by intervening early.

The New America Foundation recently published “The Promise and Peril of Predictive Analytics in Higher Education,” a report detailing ethical concerns involved in using data to make predictions and its impact on underrepresented students. (I served on the advisory board for the project.) Yet the report overlooks the fact that, despite well-intentioned efforts, early warning systems put the responsibility to change on the student when what those of us whose job is to improve student success -- educators, administrators and policy makers -- really must do is change the system.

To illustrate, consider this example: in 2007, my colleague Ganga Prusty, a professor at the University of New South Wales, Australia, inherited a course in first-year engineering mechanics that had a 31 percent failure rate. The high-enrollment, introductory-level course teaches students concepts and techniques to solve real-world engineering problems. Success in engineering mechanics is a prerequisite for most engineering-related majors. The high failure rate meant that nearly a third of students couldn’t live up to their dreams of becoming engineers. And this, mind you, in an economy that’s starved for STEM graduates!

At the time, I was doing my Ph.D. building something I called the adaptive e-learning platform -- years later it would become the technology behind Smart Sparrow, the company I founded -- trying to find ways to create digital learning experiences that are more than PDFs and PowerPoints. I was introduced to Prusty because our dean thought it would be useful to try to apply this new technology to real-world problems. I found myself for the first time trying to find new solutions for what is essentially a very old problem: student success.

Yes, Prusty could have intervened with at-risk students and advised them to consider another major, but is that what he should have done? Should he not instead have discovered why the course was failing one in three students, and tried to fix it?

Prusty and his team did the latter and started by identifying “threshold concepts,” a term Jan H. F. Meyer and Ray Land introduced in 2003 that refers to core concepts that, once understood, transform perception of a given subject. After identifying the course’s threshold concepts, Prusty and his team designed adaptive tutorials to teach engineering students what they needed to know.

Prusty’s adaptive tutorials are a form of smart digital homework. They take students about an hour or two to complete as they work on solving problems with interactive simulations and receive feedback that is based on what they do.

For example, students learn how to analyze the mechanical forces that act on beams of a bridge by designing a bridge and driving simulated cars on it, measuring in the environment whether the forces they calculated were accurate. The system is “intelligent” because it can provide feedback based on the specific mistakes the student makes (called “adaptive feedback”). If the tutorial detects that a student would benefit from more examples or content, it dynamically changes the activity to show that content (called “adaptive pathways”).

Prusty and his team designed four adaptive tutorials in all, delivered weekly to students and targeting the threshold concepts and common misconceptions students had.

It worked. Not only did students begin to enjoy doing homework -- an achievement in its own right -- but they also performed better in the course’s assessments. Prusty’s team did not stop there, however. They analyzed the way students learned using these adaptive tutorials, noticing what worked and what didn’t, and then improved the tutorials. Over time, Prusty’s team built and introduced eight more adaptive tutorials.

The result? After a few years, the failure rate dropped to 5 percent. That happened while using the same course, syllabus and final exam, and while growing the number of students by 70 percent. The only difference was the number and the quality of adaptive tutorials used.

Prusty replicated the process in another course (a more advanced course in mechanics of solids), and the failure rate dropped from 25 percent to 5 percent.

Now let’s imagine that instead, we could have used predictive analytics to identify failing students. What would we have done? We probably would have found a clever way to identify students likely to fail the course and gently suggested alternative degree programs. But would that have been the ethical thing to do?

Put another way, if you have a course with a high failure rate, should you use technology to predict who’s going to fail and alert them? Or should you fix the course? The former will improve your institution’s graduation rates, and the latter will have you try to convince your faculty to address the issue.

Which one is easier? Which one is more ethical? What happens when student success and institutional outcomes conflict?

It is all too easy to design Band-aid solutions to higher education’s completion crisis while ignoring more complex problems -- such as courses that are simply not good enough when we have an opportunity to redesign them entirely. Predictive analytics and adaptive learning are two sides of the same coin. But we will fall short at true improvement if we stop at analytics.

Dror Ben-Naim is founder and CEO of Smart Sparrow, an educational-technology company that helps faculty members create better courses by making them more active and adaptive. He is also a professor of practice at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and an adjunct academic in the University of New South Wales Australia’s School of Computer Science and Engineering, where he co-supervises research students in intelligent tutoring systems and learning design.

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Tallahassee CC, in Reversal, Keeps Faculty Senate

Tallahassee Community College's president, Jim Murdaugh, has agreed to reverse a decision he made to disband the Faculty Senate, The Tallahassee Democrat reported. Murdaugh had earlier said that the recent decision of faculty members to unionize made the Faculty Senate irrelevant. But he has agreed to keep the body going, although with some clarity about issues to be handled through collective bargaining and those to be reviewed by the Faculty Senate.

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UMass Boston Chancellor Will Step Down

J. Keith Motley (right), chancellor of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, will step down at the end of the academic year, The Boston Globe reported. The announcement that Motley is leaving is in some senses not a surprise: the university system did not renew his contract when it expired in January. Further, the university is facing enrollment declines and a deficit of up to $30 million. But Motley is also seen as having expanded programs and elevated the university's stature. Some black professors say that Motley (right) is being scapegoated and should stay on.

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The challenges wheelchair users face when visiting colleges (essay)

When I applied to college, I had used a wheelchair  --  the result of a spinal cord injury that paralyzed me from the chest down  --  for a little over half a year. I believed that every higher education institution was wheelchair accessible (after all, I was certainly not the first wheelchair user to go to college), and so I applied to colleges as if I were able-bodied. This, I quickly found out, was a mistake. I applied to eight institutions but only had the time and resources to visit two, one of which was a large research university.

The visit was a disaster. Multiple entrances to the main campus included staircases, and I had to circle around the campus before I found a flat entrance. Once I made it to the main campus, I wheeled over an unstable wooden plank placed over a short staircase. This, a tour guide explained, was a ramp.

I needed to use an elevator to get to another part of the campus, which was fine, except that the elevator was locked and campus security had the key. I pressed a button calling for security that was located by the elevator and waited about 15 minutes before a security guard who was doing his rounds showed up. He said the button I had been pressing was broken.

Later during that visit, I noticed an elevator to get into one of the libraries, but it was too small for my wheelchair. As if I didn’t have enough warning signs, I watched a student use his power chair across a section of cobblestones on the campus. As his chair bounced and jostled along the dangerously uneven surface, I wondered if I could withdraw my application and get a refund on the application fee. (You can’t.)

“How do wheelchair-using students get around?” I asked a tour guide.

He shrugged. “They manage.” I suppose I could’ve managed, too, for four years. But I had no guarantee that the situation wouldn’t get worse  --  like at Boston College, which, in part because of renovations, has faced federal and state investigations for possible violations of accessibility laws.

Besides, the lack of concern for my needs made me feel unwelcome. Physical space and a well-functioning infrastructure on a campus cannot be overlooked, especially when one has a disability. What better way to tell a wheelchair user that they don’t belong at a college or university than by strewing the campus with stairs, broken help buttons and pitiful excuses for ramps?

Although institutions of higher education are legally required to accommodate students with disabilities, in practice much of the responsibility for finding proper accommodations falls on the students themselves. The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation recommends that college applicants who are living with paralysis “visit the campus beforehand whenever possible, to determine if all of your needs and concerns can be addressed” and provides a number of questions that wheelchair-using students should ask administrators to ensure that they can practically attend a particular institution. For example, how accessible is the campus, and what are the rules with regard to relocating courses in inaccessible buildings? While this advice is useful, it also presupposes that not all colleges and universities can provide sufficient accommodations for students with disabilities.

College administrations can get away with shirking their responsibilities because the legal requirements are so vaguely worded. The Americans With Disabilities Act has been around for over 25 years, and one would think that this law would prevent any roadblocks that students with disabilities face in their quest for higher education. But the legal language of the ADA requires “reasonable accommodations,” a phrase that is very much open to interpretation.

The disability services office at the second institution I visited assured me that a wheelchair-accessible dorm room was available, and they were more than happy to show me a room. But the room was small and could not have fit my physical therapy equipment (which I use regularly to prevent blood clots, muscle atrophy and pressure sores  --  some of which could result in hospitalization). It was also in a building at the bottom of a steep hill. Disability services said that this was because there was also a food court at the bottom of the hill  --  but the main library, classroom buildings and another food court were at the top. To the administration, this room, with its accessible bathroom and location within an accessible building that was near food, was a reasonable accommodation. But for a wheelchair-using student who also has to get to the library and to class, it was anything but.

Two unsuccessful campus visits later, it was obvious that I would have to vet both campuses and disability services offices before I committed to attend a college or university. If campus disability services and I disagreed on what constituted a reasonable accommodation before enrollment, then that did not bode well for the following four years.

Further, I needed to know that the disability services office was going to work with other administrative bodies and the faculty. In 2014, Inside Higher Ed reported that ignorance among faculty and staff members at certain colleges and universities made it difficult for students with disabilities to receive accommodations. Moreover, some students with invisible disabilities (like bipolar disorder) anticipated so much resistance that they were uncomfortable even disclosing that they needed assistance.

When students receive little administrative help, they must advocate for themselves in order to make college achievable. A Rutgers University study from 2012 found that students with disabilities are successful in college in large part due to self-advocating, mentoring and perseverance. As the tour guide at the large research university said, “They manage”  --  on their own.

Yet many new college students have just barely reached legal adulthood, and self-advocacy is as new to some of them as college life is to any freshman. Under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, students do not need to advocate for their needs in a K-12 setting because schools must serve their educational needs. In college, students suddenly need to manage their living arrangements as well as their educational needs, and having to fight for accommodation adds extra complication to an already difficult adjustment. College also introduces new bureaucracies, and, often, larger staffs and faculties, which can be overwhelming for any student, regardless of ability.

Down With Barriers

I took the Reeve Foundation’s advice seriously and sought out a college that could accommodate my disability. After I heard from the institutions that accepted me, I made a rule for myself: if I couldn’t find the disability services website on an institution’s page within two minutes, it was probably a bad fit. Whenever I could, I checked campus accessibility maps, shuttle schedules and other transportation services -- and even topographic gradients. (It turns out that one of my potential colleges was located on a hill, so there was another application fee I wasn’t getting back.) I reached out to disability services offices to get their perspective on what constituted a reasonable accommodation, and I eventually found a fit.

The thing that boggles my mind most about the experience is that finding a college was so difficult, even though all I needed was basic wheelchair access and a room large enough for my physical therapy equipment. What if my disability had more specialized requirements? What if my disability was invisible, or what if I was concerned about disclosing my disability? What would I have done, and how would I have decided on a college?

The mainstream attitude toward applying to college dictates that students with disabilities are responsible for finding an institution that accommodates them. Currently, students with disabilities must visit every college campus they’re seriously considering  --  a costly endeavor  --  and although some may have never had to advocate for themselves before, they must navigate university bureaucracies and vet disability services offices to ensure a good fit. Even if the disability services office is on top of its game, students may still encounter issues with a lack of services or general ignorance of their condition among faculty members and others.

This reality is completely unacceptable. Colleges and universities should be responsible for providing and improving existing accommodations. They need to get better at this, and they need to get better soon, because a growing number of students with disabilities are enrolling in institutions of higher education.

My wheelchair should never have been a barrier to higher education. Nobody’s should. If a student has been accepted to a college, their ability to attend should never be in question. It’s time to take the burden off students with disabilities in the application process and ensure that all college and universities can accommodate their needs.

Valerie Piro is an Ed.M. student in higher education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. This article originally appeared on The Establishment, a multimedia site run and funded by women.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2017

No-Confidence Vote Disputed at Howard

The chairman of Howard University's Faculty Senate says the senate has voted no confidence in the institution's administrators, but other senators contest the vote's legitimacy.

Senators voted no confidence in President Wayne A. I. Frederick and Provost Anthony Wutoh on Friday, Faculty Senate Chairman Taft Broome told The Washington Post. The vote came amid concerns about a lack of transparency, financial difficulties and leadership at the historically black university in Washington.

But the chairman of Howard's Afro-American studies department, Greg Carr, said the vote was not on a meeting agenda and that many faculty members left the Friday meeting before the vote. He questioned whether procedures had been properly followed.

The chairman of Howard's Board of Trustees has also backed the current president and administration as honest, transparent and accountable.

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AAC&U Seeks Middle Ground on Campus Speech

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, weighed in on the ongoing debate over campus free speech Tuesday in a statement called “Free Expression, Liberal Education and Inclusive Excellence.” While other statements on the issue have admonished student protesters who would limit free -- if controversial -- speech in the interest of diversity and inclusion, Pasquerella was more considerate of such students’ concerns.

“Like those who blocked recruiters from campuses during the Vietnam War, these protesters regard their actions as justified on the grounds of necessity and attempts to stop them as further silencing those representing the most vulnerable members of society,” she said. Noting that AAC&U has long supported academic freedom but also has expanded its mission to “recognize the inextricable link between equity and quality in liberal education,” Pasquerella asserted that “a commitment to inclusivity, as well as respect for others and free inquiry, must be paramount in maintaining an environment in which the free exchange of ideas can thrive and in guiding the determination of whether speech is protected under academic freedom.”

Institutions of higher learning have different missions but are all united by “the shared goals of educating students and advancing knowledge,” and there are “circumstances under which the achievement of both objectives entails restrictions on free expression,” the statements says. Too often, it continues, free speech and academic freedom are conflated in debates surrounding campus speech. “While all views have equal standing in the public square under the First Amendment, this is not the case in the classroom,” and professors at public and private college and universities “can mandate respectful dialogue by proscribing certain types of language and other forms of expression and can stipulate rules for being recognized in a discussion.”

Pasquerella said liberal education “is designed to develop students’ capacities to think critically and to make themselves vulnerable to criticism by welcoming dissenting voices.” And in preparing students for the future, she added, “faculty members should offer curricula that include a diversity of intellectual perspectives appropriate to their disciplines, and they must also be aware of the extent to which their positionality, framing of issues and syllabi, together with written policies, campus cultures and comments by other members of the community, can serve as inhibitors of speech.”

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