New Passing Score for the GED

The GED Testing Service today announced that it will lower the passing score for the GED, a test that serves as the equivalent of a high-school degree. At the same time the service, which Pearson and the American Council on Education own jointly, said it was adding two new, optional levels above the passing score (and the previous passing level) that will allow students to signify college readiness or to earn ACE recommendations for college credits.

The testing service said it decided to "recalibrate" the GED's scoring after comparing the educational success of GED program graduates and high school graduates. The GED two years ago unveiled a new computer-based test. It also has faced new competition.

“The scoring enhancements are based on an extensive analysis of test takers’ performance data from the past 18 months, conversations with state policy makers and elected officials, and external validation with experts,” said GED Testing Service President Randy Trask in a written statement. “This is part of our ongoing commitment to make data-based decisions and continually improve the efficacy of the GED program.”

Florida State Settles With Student in Sexual Assault Case

Florida State University has settled with the former student who said she was raped by the university's star quarterback in 2012. The university on Monday announced that it agreed to pay the student, Erica Kinsman, and her lawyers $950,000, as well as to commit to a five-year plan for sexual assault awareness, prevention and training programs.

“I will always be disappointed that I had to leave the school I dreamed of attending since I was little,” Kinsman said in a statement. “I am happy that FSU has committed to continue making changes in order to ensure a safer environment for all students.”

Kinsman accused the former FSU football player, Jameis Winston, of raping her in December 2012, but the university did not begin a disciplinary process for Winston until nearly two years after the alleged assault. Articles by The New York Times and Fox Sports, citing documents obtained under open-records requests, accused Florida State and local law enforcement of taking steps to “hide, and then hinder” the criminal investigation into the allegations against Winston. (Kinsman made her identity as Winston's accuser public in the 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground.)

The university remains under investigation by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights for possibly violating Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 by mishandling Kinsman's case. FSU did not admit wrongdoing in the settlement, and John Thrasher, the university's president, said the “overriding reason” for entering into the agreement was to avoid costly litigation expenses.

“We have an obligation to our students, their parents and Florida taxpayers to deal with this case, as we do all litigation, in a financially responsible manner,” Thrasher said in a statement. “With all the economic demands we face, at some point it doesn’t make sense to continue even though we are convinced we would have prevailed.”

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Blizzard Strands Two Teams on Buses

The Duquesne University basketball team was forced to spend Friday night and much of Saturday on a bus 80 miles outside Pittsburgh in heavy traffic that was also stranded by the snow, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. The Duquesne team was returning from Virginia, where it defeated George Mason University on Friday, in a game that was moved up a day because of the blizzard. The team has been live tweeting its ordeal, and the university has also been posting photographs to Facebook, such as the image at right of team members trying to push their bus. (Update: The team is home, after 30 hours and 24 minutes on the bus.)

Meanwhile, the Temple University women's gymnastics team (photo below) is facing a similar struggle to get back to campus, ABC 6 News reported. The team is also using Twitter to keep people informed. (Update: As of Sunday afternoon, the team is no longer stuck and is headed home.)

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Professors Vote No Confidence at Loyola New Orleans

The University Senate at Loyola University New Orleans voted 38-10 to pass a measure of no confidence in the president, the Reverend Kevin Wildes, The New Orleans Advocate reported. Professors say cuts Father Wildes has announced are in large part due to poor decisions he made when the university faced earlier financial and enrollment problems. The board has expressed confidence in the president, and board leaders spoke to the University Senate before the vote.

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Governing boards are too often only mediocre in their performance (essay)

Harvard Business School professor Dutch Leonard once said, “The central challenge for nonprofit leadership is that mediocrity is survivable.” His observation was sad, but true -- and one that could easily apply to many college and university governing boards. However, the difference today given the challenges facing higher education is that mediocrity might not be survivable. At a recent conference of presidents, the key thread of the conversation was about the dangers of mediocre governance.

We observe that too many boards seem to be mired in mediocrity. During numerous board assessments that we’ve conducted over the years, we’ve asked trustees to provide a letter grade to their board’s overall performance. On average, trustees give a C-plus grade. And when we ask why they give this grade, trustees say such things as:

  • “We’re a good, but not great, board.”
  • “I’ve been on worse boards.”
  • “I suspect we’re better in our own minds than in the minds of the senior staff.”
  • “We never discuss our performance; our focus is on the administration’s performance.”
  • “We love this institution, but I’m not sure we really know how to govern well.”

Not very encouraging responses.

Why do college and university boards underperform?

The boards in the headlines are often those that are dysfunctional (think Penn State or the University of Virginia). While they may well deserve their negative spotlight, most boards are not dysfunctional -- they simply can do more to add more value and be an asset to the institution they govern. Boards do not add as much value as they should for many reasons. Some of the more common ones that we have come across include:

The focus is on the “pretty ponies.” One trustee we know remarked, “Our board meetings are dog and pony shows, but the administration only trots out the pretty ponies.” If all the trustees hear is how great everything is going, they tend to assume that everything really is great, and they may become complacent. Similarly, too often boards only learn about issues after they have already been decided, either by an overly powerful executive committee or the administration.

Brainpower goes untapped. Too often trustees do not bring their A game when it comes to board work. In some instances, the administration does not involve the board in important and meaty matters. And other times, trustees do not do their homework prior to meetings that would allow them to engage fully. Regardless of cause, when trustees check out mentally, they provide no value.

That can lead to apathy that not only affects the board’s performance at meetings but also can result in lackluster philanthropic support. Furthermore, if the right people are on the board, the institution is missing a key opportunity for their input.

The one-issue trustee reigns. On one board that we worked with, the answer to every institutional problem was “women’s golf.” They didn’t have a team, and one trustee clearly wanted one. The institution needed to increase enrollment and posed that issue to the board. “Invest in women’s golf” came the solution from the often vocal trustee. The institution wanted to engage alumni more effectively. “Women’s golf,” that same trustee urged a few hours later in the meeting, contending, “Women golfers will be dedicated alumnae.” During discussions about increasing auxiliary revenue, he jumped in with, “Well, you know, we should consider improving the golf course and creating a women’s golf team.” And so it goes.

Congeniality is not collegiality. Many boards suffer from being overly polite and deferential -- both of which result in mediocrity. In contrast, the best colleagues take each other on, pushing each other’s thinking and debating ideas, all in the spirit of advancing the common good.

High-performing boards do not shy away from difficult conversations and conflicting views and ideas. Instead, they understand that such messy, if not uncomfortable, dialogues are essential to understanding complex issues and eventually lead to better decisions. And at the end of the day (or board meeting), those trustees are able to put aside their differences and move ahead.

Good (enough) is the enemy of great. Too often we hear that the board is pretty good -- in fact, good enough. Why push harder for more? Many boards believe that behaviors that worked sufficiently in the past will continue to serve the board and the institution today and into the future. But given the increasing and changing demands on higher education institutions and their leaders, governance that was once good enough no longer is.

Many boards do not take the time to assess themselves or their meetings meaningfully. And often those that do ask questions of themselves rarely yield constructive insights. Rather, they make comments such as, “I liked the pace of the meeting,” or “We had good attendance.”

Boards don’t know otherwise. Administrators and faculty members have deep and extensive professional networks to help them not only find solutions to problems but also provide a set of benchmarks. But the fact is that most trustees have neither, as they rarely see another academic institution’s board in action. They assume that as their board goes, so do all other boards. This is clearly not the case. Too often boards look only to their own histories and practices as a guide for the future rather than looking at the practices of high-performing boards.

Presidents perpetuate the problems. There are four reasons presidents may not lead boards away from mediocrity. First, some presidents simply believe that boards do not have the knowledge to help in meaningful ways. And depending on who sits on the board, that unfortunately might be true.

Second, some presidents worry that once trustees are invited to engage in more substantive work, they’ll never get out of the details. In this case, the potential downside of micromanagement is not worth the reward. Third, presidents may not believe they have the requisite time to devote to governance. The demands on time are great, and a board that is good enough (rather than great) allows for time to be spent elsewhere.

Finally, presidents simply are inexperienced working effectively with boards. A study of presidents that one of us conducted and that was summarized in the Association of Governing Boards’ magazine Trusteeship found that approximately 25 percent of presidents had no experience working with boards prior to ascending to the presidency.

Governance structure contributes. Boards get mired in mediocrity related to the work and structure of governance for three primary reasons. First, because board work is episodic -- with infrequent meetings -- boards do not benefit from repetition and practice or from an easy continuity between meetings.

Second, on many boards, the executive committee has undue influence. That imbalance of influence may cause the rest of the group to check out, leaving a lot of complex work in the hands of too few trustees.

Third, the mind-set of trustees matters. Some trustees feel that they serve on the board to be decisive, which means to make decisions -- not to explore and understand issues, regardless of uncertainty and ambiguity about various paths forward.

Board culture is misaligned. Finally, boards may not have the right cultures for the work that they are facing or the environment in which their institution finds itself. Does the board perpetuate divergent thinking or convergent thinking? Which is needed?

Do board leaders need to maximize efficiency or deliberation? Do they bring a corporate or academic mind-set to decisions? All of these points, and others, add up to shape board culture. But the real questions are: To what extent does board culture match what the institution needs, and how might that vary over time?

In a follow-up Inside Higher Ed article, we will provide recommendations for how boards can avoid becoming mired in mediocrity. Please don’t get us wrong. Many boards have dedicated and hardworking trustees. Our point is not to belittle governance or trusteeship, but to point out its all too common shortfalls. Given the pressures facing many (if not most) colleges and universities, they need to be able to draw on all of their assets, including effective boards. Many, if not most, boards could and should be doing much more to add value as partners in the leadership of very complex institutions.

Cathy Trower is president of Trower & Trower, Inc., a board governance consulting firm. Peter Eckel is a senior fellow and the director of leadership programs at the University of Pennsylvania’s Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy.

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Virginia may create regional center for investigating sexual assaults

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State of Virginia has proposed a pilot program that would create a regional center for investigating cases of campus sexual violence.

A Research University Alternative to NSSE?

A consortium of major research universities has redesigned its undergraduate experience survey, positioning it more sharply as an alternative to the National Survey of Student Engagement. The Student Experience in the Research University survey is administered to students at the nine University of California campuses that offer undergraduate programs, 14 other Association of American Universities research universities and 11 international institutions in Europe and Asia.

The survey focuses on five facets of undergraduate education: social skills development, personal development, academic skills development, civic engagement, and economic opportunity and security. Steven Brint, vice provost of undergraduate education at the University of California at Riverside and co-chair of the committee that redesigned the survey, said the SERU survey is "a better fit" for public research universities than the NSSE survey.

"A central mission of public research universities is to meet the needs of the communities they serve," Brint said in a statement. "So we do need to ask if we're doing a good job not only in helping students to develop their cognitive skills, but also in other areas such as preparing students to be active citizens and effective organizational leaders."

Five More States to Create Student Success Centers

Five additional states will create statewide student success centers in an effort to help more community college students earn a credential. The announcement this week means the total number of states with such centers in place will grow to 12. This approach, begun five years ago in Michigan and Arkansas, seeks more coordination and cooperation across institutions and systems and among state policy makers on strategies that work to boost college completion.

“These centers build a cohesive approach to engagement, learning and policy advocacy across each state’s two-year institutions,” said Caroline Altman Smith, deputy director of the Kresge Foundation's education program. “The colleges can then spend their resources more effectively and create reforms that help the most students possible graduate.”

Kresge and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are funding the work. Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit group, is helping to create the centers. The new states are Hawaii, New York, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington. Student success centers currently are up and running in Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio and Texas.

Fort Wayne Faculty Rejects Plan to Split Campus

Faculty members at Indiana University-Purdue University at Fort Wayne formally opposed a recommendation that the university split into two separate universities, Indy Star reported. The Faculty Senate voted unanimously this week to urge the presidents and boards of trustees at Indiana University and Purdue University to reject a recent proposal by a working group tasked by the state's General Assembly to divide the campus. The working group of Indiana, Purdue and Fort Wayne representatives voted 6-2 to approve the recommendation, but Fort Wayne Chancellor Vicky Carwein said she voted against it, according to the Star. Fort Wayne Faculty Senate President Andrew Downs, an associate professor of political science, also voted against it.

According to the working group’s recommendation, Indiana would keep control of the School of Medicine and bolster its health science and medical education programs, while Purdue would control everything else. The senate resolution says that the group’s recommendation was based on an “insufficient investigation” and lacks supporting data. Supporters of the plan say it would streamline operations and clear up who's in charge of what on campus. The recommendation goes next to the boards of trustees for Indiana and Purdue for consideration.

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U of Illinois Approves Background Check Policy for Professors

The University of Illinois Board of Trustees on Thursday approved a revised policy requiring criminal background checks for new employees, including faculty members. The new policy addresses concerns about privacy and fairness raised by faculty members on various campuses about a previous policy approved by the board in September. That policy had been prompted in part by the revelation that the Urbana-Champaign campus hired James Kilgore, an ex-convict and former member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, as an adjunct instructor of global studies and urban planning.

While Kilgore had shared his record with the university and it hired him anyway, local media reports sparked backlash against that decision and questions about the university’s background check policy for all faculty members (it didn’t have one). That resulted in the adoption of the older policy, which some said was too vague, didn’t address issues of rehabilitation and repaying one’s debt to society, and could have a disproportionate impact on minority applicants.

A working group of faculty and administrators worked to review the policy, consulting with faculty governance bodies. The revisions seek to put a bigger focus on campus safety and distinguish between criminal background checks and other kinds of checks, as well as on supporting workforce diversity. Under the new policy, there is no list of crimes that automatically disqualify someone from employment. Checks yielding criminal records will be weighed against a variety of factors, such as one’s age at the time of the crime and employment record since. Checks are only done after job offers are made, contingent upon a successful result.

The Urbana-Champaign Faculty Senate approved a resolution rejecting the policy, citing residual concerns.

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