The University System of Georgia Board of Regents adopted a new policy on Tuesday that will limit how much money from student fees and tuition can be used for athletic programs at the state's public colleges and universities. The cap won't affect the state's athletic powerhouses, the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech, as athletics subsidies at both institutions are well below the new policy's limit of 65 to 85 percent of a college's athletic budget. UGA relies on student funding for 2.5 percent of its athletic spending, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, while Georgia Tech relies on 7.2 percent. Six institutions in the state are over the new subsidy cap, including Georgia State University.
Pacific Union College students continue to protest the rumored possible termination of a tenured professor of psychology over his decision to invite an atheist and well-known critic of the Seventh-day Adventist church, with which the college is affiliated, to campus to speak. About 60 students marched across campus and several hundred attended a town hall about the matter last week, the St. Helena Starreported. Others have been active on social media over concerns that the professor, Aubyn Fulton, may be fired for asking Ryan Bell -- a former Seventh-day Adventist turned atheist who is critical of the church's position on such issues as gay rights -- to address a class he was teaching in the fall. The talk never happened, as Heather Knight, college president, canceled the event days prior, according to the Star. But Fulton wrote recently on his Facebook page that he would be fired at the end of the spring quarter for his role in the matter.
Fulton, who has previously clashed with administrators over comments about homosexuality, according to the Star, declined comment. Knight said the professor’s online comments had been “misleading,” and that she had not told him he’d be fired. She also said the college had set up a Academic Freedom Task Force to examine the college’s academic freedom policy. But she said that Fulton had praised Bell as “courageous” and “honest” in his Facebook post -- and that’s a problem.
“If you’re going to bring someone like that who’s repudiated church doctrine, who has publicly attacked the church and publicly attacked God, you wouldn’t want to seem like you’re making this person into a hero,” Knight said. Ideally, she added, faculty members would consult with colleagues or administrators before inviting controversial speakers to campus. There might have been an appropriate way for Bell to address students, she told the Star, but “there wasn’t enough time to figure it out. … We’re not saying students shouldn’t be exposed to these ideas.”
The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics says it may explore ways to allow players to profit off their names and likenesses, though some members argue too few athletes would benefit from such a change.
Columbia University announced a series of new benefits for graduate students this week. John H. Coatsworth, provost, wrote in an email to Ph.D. students that beginning in the fall, those eligible for funding get 12 weeks parental leave and an additional, optional unfunded semester away. Students may also receive a child care subsidy of $2,000 per year for children under five who are not enrolled in kindergarten. International students also will see their special services fee paid by their college or school.
“We remain committed to a continuing dialogue with you to enhance the overall experience of our graduate students,” Coatsworth wrote. The United Auto Workers Union, with which Columbia graduate students are affiliated, said in a statement that graduate workers had been calling on the university to help students with families care for them while maintaining their academic standing. They continue to seek formal union recognition.
Several weeks ago, I completed five bracing years in Washington, D.C., as president of the Association of American Universities. What have I learned about research universities and their place in American life? Three things stand out: undergraduate education, crucial to liberal democracy, is showing signs of getting better; federal regulation of universities, an issue to which I had previously paid little attention, is stifling and out of date; and big-time intercollegiate athletics, incredibly popular, are also incredibly perilous for universities, as their moral and physical hazards multiply rapidly.
If anything exhibits the essentiality of education to the maintenance of democracy, it is the current presidential campaign. Some candidates have succeeded with appeals to fear and base instincts, with misleading claims based on passion instead of evidence, with repudiation of reason and rationality, and with autocratic overtones. America needs citizens educated to think critically and independently, and trained to weigh arguments about complex subjects like energy and climate and tax policy against one another with some degree of sophistication.
What prepares citizens to carry out these essential tasks? A liberal education -- that is, in its original meaning, an education suited to produce free people. That is a far more important outcome for our country than the (very large) difference in career earnings between those who earn a college degree and those who don’t, the figure generally cited as the primary benefit offered by a degree.
It is encouraging, after years of neglect, to see many of our nation’s leading research universities giving high priority once more to the quality of education they offer to undergraduate students. Motivated partly by faculty ingenuity and concern, partly by parents’ complaints about shortcomings in their children’s education, public and private universities are spending a great deal of time, effort and money on freshman seminars; undergraduate research programs; curricular enhancement, including smart use of online materials; and learning analytics designed to produce more individualized teaching methods.
At AAU, for example, our five-year-old undergraduate STEM education initiative has built considerable momentum, thanks to the active participation of dozens of member universities. The project aims to improve the teaching of gateway courses in science and math -- precisely the freshman and sophomore classes that have traditionally turned off many would-be science majors before they really get started. Professors use evidence-based methods of teaching, such as group learning, problem solving, clickers, online tools and other means of increasing student engagement in the classroom. Good courses in chemistry, physics, math, computer science and the life sciences are crucial for students who will confront tough policy choices as adults in numerous domains calling for scientific literacy.
Science is just one part of a strong liberal education. Humanities and social sciences are also vital to enabling students to develop critical thinking, the ability to speak and write effectively, and the kind of collaborative skills needed in the workplace and in the public sector. Employers increasingly cite these skills as essential to their hiring needs, and life studies clearly reveal their contribution to personal satisfaction and fulfillment. Much more needs to be done to promote courses in the humanities, in particular, because the current zeitgeist heavily favors careerism: students are flocking to business and other practical majors in an effort to appeal to the job market. A longer view demonstrates the value of a broad education, as many studies have noted.
A Burdensome Regulatory Regime
Universities continue to put a premium on research, which has made American institutions the best in the world. But lagging federal investment over the past decade has threatened our pre-eminent position, as has a regulatory regime plagued by overlapping, duplicative, burdensome requirements that stifle faculty members and cost universities millions of dollars in unproductive legal and audit fees. The past five years have been remarkably frustrating for those of us trying to cut through this thicket: after taking initial steps to reduce and harmonize regulations early in its tenure, the Obama administration has made no further progress.
Senators Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Representative Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) have developed legislation to address these issues. And the administration continues to discuss the possibility of further actions by the end of the year. We hope for progress, if not by January 2017 then in the next administration and Congress.
Another key regulatory domain for universities is accreditation, which not only is outmoded but threatens to taint our entire enterprise. Accreditation, which is intended to ensure the credibility of colleges and universities, fails to provide accountability for institutions that abuse students and government funds. Moreover, it subjects institutions to the same unproductive requirements whether they have superb or mediocre track records.
The process of accreditation rarely results in serious action of any kind. Recent cases of shockingly ineffective schools (mostly proprietary institutions) gaining reaccreditation in spite of glaring, even fraudulent practices, have drawn negative attention to our entire sector. They have fed the public perception that universities in general are unregulated, when in fact we are among the most regulated industries in America.
What can be done? At the least, the regional accrediting agencies need to institute differential accreditation based on past performance. They should not treat the Ohio State University and the University of Notre Dame the same way they treat institutions that leave most of their students with exceedingly high debt and no degree. And accreditors need to set a few indicators -- like graduation rates, student debt and default rates -- such that institutions falling below certain thresholds will be subject to greater scrutiny. If those institutions are found to be failing the interests of students and abusing taxpayer support, they should be put out of business.
An Out-of-Control Model
Finally, intercollegiate athletics. I played four years of college baseball and basketball (at the Division III level), and I am a fervent fan of college sports and the cohesiveness and community they engender among students, alumni, faculties and administrations. For excitement and aesthetic pleasure, they are unparalleled in American life. The public therefore wants more and more of them.
But big-time college sports are now out of institutional control, whether of the universities themselves or of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Recent scandals and court decisions make it clear that the model we know so well is cracking, probably irreparably.
What have university leaders done about this? Overwhelmed by the demands of millions of alumni and other fans, very little. Instead, they watch as “student-athletes” strike and appeal to the National Labor Relations Board, former players sue, wealthy lawyers go to court to argue that the NCAA violates antitrust laws, and judges are left to determine the future of intercollegiate athletics.
Looming over these legal exposures is the sheer scale of the money implicated in the enterprise. Some universities’ athletic programs bring in so much revenue they don’t know how to spend it. Recent competition for building the largest scoreboard at football stadiums is almost -- almost -- humorous in its lunacy. Other institutions can’t balance their athletic budgets in spite of tens of millions of dollars in revenue. Coaches’ salaries are an embarrassment: in most of the 50 states a university basketball or football coach is the most highly paid public employee -- by a wide margin. The vast amounts of money pouring into the National Basketball Association and National Football League can be condoned because they are professional businesses. But the hoards of cash falling into the laps of universities for completely nonacademic purposes compromise the extraordinary work they do in carrying out their academic missions.
What can be done about the tremendous vulnerabilities inherent in intercollegiate athletics? It is late in the day, perhaps too late, to stave off such developments as paying players or drastic solutions imposed by the courts. Only very serious internal reforms might save the enterprise. Universities need to consider downsizing across the board: the length of the season, coaches’ pay, skyboxes and scoreboards, athletic dorms, and the other monstrosities of the enterprise that now tarnishes campuses otherwise devoted to learning.
Will universities get off the tiger’s back on their own? I am not optimistic.
Hunter R. Rawlings III served as president of the Association of American Universities, an association of leading public and private research universities in the U.S. and Canada, from 2011 until April 25 of this year, when he became interim president of Cornell University. He is a former president of Cornell and of the University of Iowa.
A little over a year ago, I left my post as vice president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education to become chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and University of Wisconsin-Extension, a job I was attracted to because of the strong access, attainment and innovation values that are at the core of these institutions.
For example, UW-Extension is the home to the UW Flexible Option Program, and the UW Colleges offer their entire two-year liberal arts transfer curriculum in a competency-based format.
Having spent the past year overseeing one of the first and most visible direct-assessment competency-based programs in the country -- and the only one within a major public university -- I’ve had a number of aha moments that could only come from hands-on involvement in the real day-to-day work that makes these programs an exciting new option for institutions and their students.
However, developing a competency-based program, especially of the direct-assessment variety (no classes, per se), is not easy. Everything is new: identifying and describing competencies; developing meaningful assessments; gaining accreditation and federal approval (which we did); recruiting faculty and staff to participate; developing workarounds to student information systems while we develop new ones to support these programs; and explaining the concept again and again to the public, business and government leaders, and prospective students. Add to that the complexity that partnerships bring since, in our case, our current programs are offered in collaboration with other University of Wisconsin institutions.
We relish our role as pioneers because we believe we can make a dent in the need for postsecondary attainment in our state -- and beyond. But to make competency-based programs work, you need to find your allies -- people who can tolerate ambiguity at times and many roadblocks along the way. You need to establish the means to reward them financially and in other ways, because forging new territory takes enormous time, energy and commitment.
Though we in higher education have been focused on student learning outcomes in broad terms for decades, faculty who developed our UW Flexible Option programs embraced the tasks of delineating competencies on a far more granular basis than they had done before. They also took on the enormous job of creating meaningful authentic assessments, not simply multiple-choice exams, and guiding our academic success coaches, who in turn guide our students.
Our first programs were in professionally oriented fields like health care and information technology that naturally lend themselves to a competency-based approach. I am particularly impressed with the faculty within the UW Colleges (the 13 high-access two-year transfer institutions that are the on-ramp to the UW System), who created a direct assessment version of the first two years of liberal arts general education, providing a strong rebuttal to those who say the liberal arts cannot be taught in a competency-based format.
I know that any time faculty take a close look at the curriculum, courses get better. I have heard from our faculty that they believe their involvement in designing UW Flexible Option programs improved their classroom teaching. Surfacing competencies and shifting to a mastery model, where one competency must be mastered at a particular level before moving on to the next, is finding its way to various degrees within our traditional programs.
A recent interview-based briefing by the Education Advisory Board highlighted the difficulty some students and employers have understanding the direct-assessment competency-based model. I agree with the EAB finding that emphasizing flexibility in student recruitment, rather than using the term “competency based,” is more effective.
I disagree with the EAB recommendation that the competency-based format is best suited to and should focus on short postgraduate degrees and programs. While it is true that the most experienced students will tend to adapt to the format more quickly and will persist to completion, it would be a shame if we did not deploy this effective and flexible teaching model to address the critical need for postsecondary attainment at the associate and bachelor's degree level. Our experience with UW Flexible Option gives us great optimism that competency-based education is here to stay and through this modality, we will make a difference.
The general media often describe competency-based education as a “shortcut” to a degree. For example, The Atlantic titled its September 2015 article about Western Governors University, “The Online College That Credits Life Experience.” A recent survey by Public Agenda indicated that nearly 600 colleges are creating competency-based credentials. I worry somewhat that all these new programs may try to take shortcuts in program design, will shortchange students and sully the reputation of CBE.
We have an advantage because regular UW faculty are directly involved in program design. Students earn a standard degree from a University of Wisconsin campus and understand these credentials have and are perceived as having great value.
The earliest graduates who took part in UW Flexible Option’s bachelor’s degree completion programs finished their degrees quickly, in less than two years. These nontraditional working students with some college experience but no degree were able to avoid one of the greatest barriers to degree completion in this student population -- obtaining academic credit for courses completed elsewhere. Other forms of credit for prior learning (transcripted credit and portfolios) have not been shown to break down barriers significantly for nontraditional students, the majority of whom will have attended three different institutions before finally earning a degree.
Direct assessment allows students to leapfrog the current credit transfer miasma by completing assessments designed by faculty, thus proving what they already know or can do. This is not “credit for life experience,” but recognition of university-level work that was accomplished elsewhere, whether in a formal class at another institution or in the workplace. It doesn’t matter where, when or how the learning took place. As long as the student can demonstrate it, he or she gets credit for it along the pathway to completing the program.
Another positive consequence of direct assessment program design is greater use of faculty-curated open educational resources that students can access as they learn new material and prepare for assessments. Faculty who design for us may have been exposed to the OER world for the first time, realizing the wealth of quality materials available for free and perhaps integrating more OER into classroom-based programs. Greater use of OER is especially important for institutions that have a high-access mission and a focus on affordability, such as ours.
Direct-assessment competency-based programs are not for everyone. A younger, first-time, first-generation student needs more face-to-face interaction and support. Students enrolled in competency-based programs should have a smooth pathway to transfer into a traditional online or classroom-based program if they find that the format is not the best choice for them.
Our need for greater postsecondary attainment -- and the highly diverse nature of students in the U.S. -- calls for multiple pathways to a degree, including flexible means for meeting the needs of older, experienced, working students and getting them to the finish line.
Cathy Sandeen is chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and the University of Wisconsin-Extension.