administrators

New presidents or provosts: Bath Spa Camden Elon Jamestown Luxembourg Montana Muskingum Pratt Smith Union

  • Clarence D. Armbrister, president of Girard College, a boarding school in Pennsylvania, has been chosen as president of Johnson C. Smith University, in North Carolina.
  • Seth Bodnar, senior executive for strategy and transformation at GE Transportation, in Illinois, has been selected as president of the University of Montana.

A president cites lessons learned from a controversy concerning academic freedom (opinion)

Here are two simple truths.

One, when you’re a college president who happens to be a black woman, you get asked to speak about diversity and inclusion a lot. Two, when you’re a college president whose campus has been disrupted by a social media maelstrom over a professor’s words, you get asked to speak about managing crises and the tension between academic freedom and other fundamental values a lot.

This year, I’ve experienced the convergence of those two truths because the controversy our campus weathered last summer involved a perfect storm of race, politics, safety on campus and competing claims of ownership over who has the right to speak and what they can and cannot say.

The trouble began on June 20, when Campus Reform -- a conservative website that counts as “victories” the firings of faculty members or changes in college policies that result from its efforts to expose liberal “bias and abuse” at colleges -- reported on the Facebook posts of a tenured Trinity College sociology professor who is black. A couple of days earlier, the professor, a scholar of race and racism in America, had expressed his outrage at continuing racial violence in a series of provocative posts on his personal social media accounts. In doing so, he used a hashtag borrowed from the title of a piece written by someone else (#LetThemFuckingDie). I’ve said that hashtag not only offended me personally but also was inconsistent with the highest values of our institution.

You don’t have to know the specifics of this story to have a sense of what happened next, because this sort of controversy is now familiar throughout higher education, and the events follow a well-worn pattern. Other conservative and alt-right organizations picked up the story, distorting it (in some cases publishing outright falsehoods), and social media trolls descended upon us. The professor and his family received numerous direct threats, as did my family and I, and we were forced to close the college for half a day after receiving several threats to campus. People across the campus -- administrative assistants, admissions counselors and many others -- were besieged with vile, hateful phone calls and emails.

And then, of course, we heard calls for the professor and me to be fired, and demands for me to defend the professor and his academic freedom unequivocally. There was fear on the campus and worry among our community broadly. The college placed the professor on leave while we examined the matter more carefully and in consideration of the safety issues. And many faculty members considered this an infringement on the professor’s academic freedom. Though our administrative report (released July 14, 2017) supported the professor’s right to say what he did, anger remained throughout many of our constituencies. The trolls, at least temporarily, had succeeded. We were a college divided.

Over time, the trolls (mostly) moved on, and we were left to come back together as a community and, hopefully, grow stronger. That work is hard. Anger on my campus and among our alumni remains. But we have worked hard to encourage programming that has allowed each side to express opinions and to understand the nuances and contours of academic freedom. We have been vigilant about safety issues on campus. That work continues.

And now I’m regularly asked to reflect on lessons learned. I can do that now, with a little distance from the intensity of the storm. There are many lessons. Here are a few.

  • Resist the pressure to make hasty decisions and view a situation simplistically. From all sides, we were bombarded with demands to say more, do more, act more quickly and see things in absolutes. As educators, our role is to help our students see and embrace complexities, and a situation like this is full of them.
  • Stick to your principles. I can both support free speech and acknowledge that it and every other freedom has limits and carries responsibilities. As a college president, I can uphold a community member’s right to free expression and express my own opinion when I believe something runs counter to our institutional values. This is not a popularity contest. This is a complex situation and, as a leader, you have to look yourself in the mirror each and every day as the controversy continues.
  • Rely on plans and processes. We put our emergency management plans to the test, and they worked. We also turned to existing policies in evaluating what had happened. But it’s important to acknowledge that most governance processes aren’t meant to address crisis situations, and college leaders must prioritize safety and balance an often-divergent set of institutional needs.
  • Listen. So many people were demanding that I say a particular thing (and, in fact, very different things, depending on their perspectives), but listening was at least as important as speaking. If I had it to do over again, I’d work harder to stay in direct conversation with the professor myself, before so many other external forces leaned on us. And I think more listening from everyone involved -- to hear perspectives from all sides -- would have helped us get more quickly to a point of understanding. Indeed, having gone through our recent experience, our hope is that all members of our community better understand the need to listen and our shared responsibility to communicate directly and honestly with each other.
  • Find strength in numbers. Colleges don’t bear the sole responsibility for protecting speech -- it’s the duty of all citizens. This is complicated in a society that recognizes that speech by bullies hurts and has consequences on the victim. But colleges and universities do have a special role to play in protecting speech, as a vicious culture war is being waged against higher education today. We -- college leaders, faculty members, alumni and organizations that exist to advance and support higher education -- must work together to battle it, to stay true to our values and protect academic freedom for the good of the academy and the public.

I don’t know what the future holds for this particular story. We are not yet a college united. The professor will be back teaching in the spring, and it’s very possible we’ll see a renewed attack from the alt-right and others. Some faculty members and students are still angry because they believe that I didn’t stand up strongly enough for academic freedom and placed concerns of physical safety over intellectual safety. Some alumni and students are still angry because they believe that the professor’s words set a hateful tone and damaged the college -- and in a business setting would have resulted in firing. Did I make the right choice in balancing academic freedom and safety? I believe I did. But that doesn’t mean everyone agrees.

I’m hopeful, however, that the entire Trinity College community has learned important lessons. And I’m heartened by the way I saw our college community come together this past semester -- including around an initiative we launched called Bridging Divides -- to continue the ongoing work of engaging in productive, respectful dialogue and understanding across deep differences. Today, in our deeply divided world, that work seems more important than ever.

Joanne Berger-Sweeney is president of Trinity College in Connecticut. This column is adapted from her remarks at this year’s Council of Independent Colleges Presidents Institute.

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Concordia of Oregon Reverses Course on Gay Group

(Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to correct numerous facts.)

Concordia University, a Lutheran college in Oregon, on Friday announced that it would formally recognize an LGBTQ+ student group whose charter it had challenged, Willamette Week reported.

Concordia had battled with the Queer Straight Alliance for some time, according to former group members, by forcing the club to change its name and canceling on-campus events. In June, an internal review found that Concordia was in violation of its own anti-discrimination policy in its treatment of the LGBTQ+ advocacy group. The university subsequently changed its club charter requirement policies, and when camps officials told the Queer Straight Alliance that its application would be approved only if it dropped a phrase about its mission being to "raise awareness and change perception of Christian folks," the club opted to shut down in December. Without recognition as a university club, the alliance could no longer hold meetings or events on campus.

University President Charles Schlimpert announced Friday that in addition to approving the group without requiring it to change the wording, Concordia would create a “safe space program” for LGBTQ+ students; invite the club’s members to meet with the university president; facilitate trainings in support of LGBTQ+ students for faculty, staff and administration; convene community and church leaders to discuss LGBTQ+ issues; and reopen the discussion related to the university’s club and events policy.

“We remain committed to diversity, equity and inclusion, and we support all students, particularly people from groups who have historically been marginalized,” the statement said.

The Queer Straight Alliance expressed some skepticism about the university’s decision to reinstate the group. In a Friday statement, the club said they hadn't been contacted by Concordia about the reversal, and that the university’s current club policies restrict the group in operating as it intends. Despite the university’s resistance, the Queer Straight Alliance is popular on campus, voted “best club” by students two years in a row.

“While we are hopeful and willing to collaborate with the university to create a safer, more inclusive campus (when we are actually invited to the table), we want to be thoughtful about our next actions and ensure we don’t forget those who have already been negatively impacted by the university’s actions,” the statement said.

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Concordia of Oregon Lifts Ban on Gay Group

Impact of government shutdown on higher education

Student aid won't face immediate impact, but civil rights investigations are likely to halt. Research agencies are unlikely to review and act on grant proposals.

NCAA allows Mexican institutions to join Division II, with one aiming to be first

Section: 

Cetys University, a private institution not far from the U.S. border, may be the first Mexican institution to join the association after a new rule was approved Saturday.

Three ways higher ed leaders can respond to declining public confidence (opinion)

Higher education leaders across the country are engaging in much hand-wringing over declining public confidence in colleges and universities. A variety of polls and surveys suggest multiple themes. Particularly prominent are findings that the value of college is declining in relation to the benefits. That reflects a belief that the cost of tuition has become excessive, combined with growing skepticism that a college degree confers economic security.

A second theme is that colleges and universities are havens for liberal ideologues whose values are at odds with those of most Americans. One recent survey found that a majority of Republicans and conservatives now think that higher education is having a negative impact on the direction of the country. A third element in the “public confidence” discussion is the perception that colleges and universities are essentially businesses, more concerned with their own well-being than with educating students or serving communities.

How alarmed should academic leaders be? After all, public regard for most institutions -- from the Congress to the media -- is not exactly high, part of a negative national mood. Buried in the survey data, in fact, are reassuring indications of underlying belief in the value of higher education. Some of the findings, moreover, particularly those related to the economic value of a college degree, appear to reflect short-term fluctuations in the economy, especially the difficult job market for college graduates after the 2008 recession. Finally, skepticism about a decline in the return on investment in higher education is misguided, although leaders need to be concerned about why such a gross misperception has gained traction and try to correct it.

Yet notwithstanding the need for caution in interpreting this or that recent poll, public attitudes toward higher education have clearly grown more skeptical, and public support less robust, over the last two or three decades. The generation of academic leaders now nearing retirement can remember a time of widespread admiration for the work of academic institutions, near universal belief in the value of a college education and generous funding from both state and federal governments.

The atmosphere in recent years has been decidedly different. During my time as Commissioner of Higher Education in Massachusetts between 2009 and 2015, I was repeatedly struck by the tepid concern for the well-being of public colleges and universities. Like many other states, Massachusetts significantly reduced support for higher education during the Great Recession and shifted more and more of the responsibility for supplying its revenues to students and families. This development produced little evident concern among state leaders or the public.

Three Recommendations

As someone who chose a career in academe because I believe the work is vital to the strength of our democracy and our economy, and essential to delivering on the promise of the American dream, I have been trying to understand how higher education has fallen so far in public regard. When I consider the three themes in the “public trust” narrative mentioned above -- skepticism about the value of a college degree, belief that academe promotes values at odds with those of many Americans and concern that our institutions are driven by self-interest rather than a commitment to improve society -- I see reflections of things I have worried about myself. I also see things that higher education can do, and emerging patterns of change, that can help recover at least some of the public support we have lost.

First, we must embrace the legitimacy of preparing young people for the workplace as part of undergraduate education. Embedded in doubts about the economic value of a college degree are perceptions that many colleges and universities, especially those that emphasize liberal education for undergraduates, do not take seriously their students’ focus on preparing for a job after graduation. There is, of course, more than a grain of truth in this perception. Champions of the liberal arts have often demonstrated disdain for the practical interests of students, and career counseling and placement offices at many colleges and universities have been neglected and marginal enterprises.

Thankfully, we are witnessing significant change in this area. Many colleges that stress liberal education -- including leading liberal arts institutions such Amherst College, Clark University and Smith College -- are seeking new ways to combine liberal learning with preparation for careers. They’ve introduced internships, made curricular adjustments and intensified use of alumni mentors, while still stressing the central (and undeniable) value of liberal learning. We are on the way to a new paradigm for undergraduate education that can align our work more closely with the reason most students enroll in our programs.

Second, we should reinvigorate academe’s historic commitment to preparing students for citizenship and modeling democratic values. The concern that higher education has become a liberal enclave is largely true, a reality that often reflects deeply held moral ideas that are inevitably associated with advanced learning. We can’t change that, and we shouldn’t. But we can -- and should -- change other things.

For starters, we should take seriously our mission to help students acquire the knowledge and skills to become active, informed participants in our civic life. This priority is fully consistent with our best traditions and can also counter the charge that academic values are at odds with patriotism. I have been encouraged by the civic learning movement within higher education in its various manifestations, but most colleges and universities need to be much more aggressive and explicit in advancing this long-neglected dimension of their mission. In addition, campus leaders must make it clear in every possible way, including when hiring faculty members -- as part of demonstrating their commitment to preparing students for life in a democracy -- that their institutions are open to a wide range of opinion on socially and politically controversial matters and will not let campus communities be dominated by intolerant ideologues.

Third, campus leaders should foreground a commitment to undergraduate education, just as hospitals, including teaching hospitals, foreground a commitment to patient care. The perception that colleges and universities have become self-interested businesses rather than institutions that serve students and communities is particularly troubling to me. I suspect many elements contribute to this perception. But among the causes may well be the de-emphasis of undergraduate education and the prioritization of research that occurred within higher education during the latter part of the 20th century, especially among the leading universities that dominate public views of our industry.

Many of the financial pressures that drive up undergraduate costs -- reduced teaching loads, expensive research facilities, financial aid for graduate students -- derive from the cost of supporting ambitious research programs that advance institutional status but are only indirectly linked with undergraduate education. The shift of emphasis toward research has encouraged faculty members to emphasize publication and grant-getting rather than teaching students, a change that subtly shifts the moral basis of academic work from serving others to advancing individual careers.

This is not intended as an argument against the importance of research and graduate education. But colleges need to make clear to the public that they are serious about teaching undergraduates -- which most people think is our primary purpose -- and do not base the price of tuition on the need to subsidize activities not clearly related to that work. I am encouraged by what I perceive to be a reassertion of concern for undergraduate teaching and learning. But colleges and universities, especially the country’s leading institutions, have a long way to go to re-establish this mission on a par with research as a widespread institutional priority.

Diminished public regard for higher education is both complex and troubling. There are no quick fixes or easy answers. But heightened attention to preparing students for life after college both as workers and as citizens, along with a more focused celebration of our commitment to undergraduate education, can help higher education regain a reputation for public purpose and with it some of the support that has slipped away.

Richard M. Freeland is president emeritus of Northeastern University and senior consultant at Maguire Associates.

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Leaks in the Biomedical Research Faculty Pipeline

A new study by Vanderbilt University researchers published in PLOS ONE finds two points of significant loss for underrepresented minorities in the basic biomedical research faculty pipeline: during undergraduate studies and in transition from postdoctoral fellowships to tenure-track faculty positions at medical schools.

The paper, based on data from the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates and Survey of Doctoral Recipients, among other sources, attributes the first leak to relatively high rates of attrition among underrepresented minorities during their undergraduate training. Reasons for the second leak are less clear, according to the study, but could include climate concerns among underrepresented minorities considering faculty careers. Still, the paper suggests that institutions committed to increasing diversity at the faculty level will “need to focus their attention on the contributing factors to stages where major losses occur.”

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House Committee Requests GAO Report on Sexual Harassment by Federally Funded Researchers

Leaders of the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee from both parties on Thursday asked the Government Accountability Office to report on sexual harassment by federally funded researchers -- including how many harassment cases are pending before federal agencies and how many have been investigated and resolved since 2013. The request notes that grant-awarding agencies may opt to terminate funding to an institution that fails to comply with federal laws against harassment in education. It also asks whether current systems and protections to address harassment are effective and accessible.

In addition to numbers of cases, Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, the committee’s Republican chairman, and Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, a Democrat and the ranking committee member, told the office they wanted information on federal grant-making agencies’ harassment policies and procedures on harassment and compliance programs for Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender discrimination in education.

The lawmakers requested a focus on the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, NASA and the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy, given their high levels of research funding. The request is part of the committee’s ongoing investigation into allegations of sexual harassment in science, which was prompted in part by a high-profile harassment case involving a longtime Boston University geologist.

“Sexual harassment has a significant negative impact on the ability of female students and early career researchers to engage in research at the same level as their male peers,” reads Smith and Johnson’s letter to the GAO. “Equitable access to education and research experiences cannot be ensured for women in the sciences until gender discrimination, implicit bias, and sexual harassment are no longer potential barriers to their success.”

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NCAA president, board pledge swift changes in men's basketball

NCAA president and Board of Governors had pledged to act quickly on recommendations to reform men's basketball after federal officials revealed a scheme to steer recruits to certain colleges in exchange for cash.

Study Questions Value of 'Stackable' Credentials

A recently released paper found "only weakly positive and inconsistent gains" in the labor market for stackable credentials, which are defined as certificates and degrees that are awarded in a sequential order, as students progress in their careers.

The study by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College, which was released in November, includes several caveats, such as an acknowledgment that estimated earnings gains from stackable credentials may be imprecise. But, using federal data, the study found no clear labor-market benefits from any of the combination of stacked credentials.

"We conclude that the labor market evidence on stackable credentials is (at best) modestly positive: the earnings gains for degrees are robust and the gains for certificates, although not high, are generally positive," the paper said. "Yet, there is no clear evidence on the earnings gains explicitly from stacking these credentials. Moreover, we cannot identify which type of stack -- supplemental, progression or independent -- yields the highest earnings gains."

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