After recession and recovery, students report they remain 'financially stressed'

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Most students remain worried about money and the cost of required academic materials, and the impact is worse for minority students, the National Survey of Student Engagement finds.

Mills Students, Faculty Protest Proposed Cuts

Students and faculty members of Mills College rallied on campus Wednesday in protest of $250,000 in proposed cuts to adjunct salaries on top of $3 million in cuts to arts, language, ethic studies and public policy programs. The college is struggling to stay afloat amid declining enrollment and persistent budget deficits. Service Employees International Union, which represents adjunct faculty on the campus, says the cuts would disproportionately affect part-time faculty and put its liberal arts mission at risk. “We do not understand how, at an institution committed to social justice and equity, such disparity exists between those who serve the college’s central educational missions, and those who have made decisions about its future without faculty input, and on the backs of its most vulnerable members,” Sandra Banks, a visiting assistant professor of chemistry, said in a statement.

Sharon Washington, interim provost and dean of the faculty, said in a separate statement that it is “standard for colleges to regularly re-examine their curriculum and Mills is no exception.” Mills “is committed to sustaining itself as a leader in higher education. This means that we must evolve,” she added. “We must build on our contemporary liberal arts education with flexible programs and curriculum that will distinguish us as a college and serve our students well into the next century.”

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Follett acquisition Neebo still erroneously sending students to collection agencies

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Renting textbooks is a popular option for frugal students, but one company has for years -- and without notice -- erroneously sent students to collection agencies, in some cases demanding hundreds of dollars in replacement fees.

College Staying Closed Through Thanksgiving

Washington College, in Maryland, will remain closed through Thanksgiving, the institution announced Wednesday. Law enforcement officials and others are worried about a missing student believed to be armed.

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White House Meeting for College Leaders on Climate Change

The White House and the U.S. Department of State are hosting college administrators and student leaders today for a meeting on climate change, according to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. The goal of the meeting is to call for action on climate change, including for a strong agreement at a meeting the United Nations is hosting in Paris in a couple weeks.

"Participating colleges and universities will have already signed a White House Act on Climate Pledge (working title) demonstrating their commitment to carrying out their own sustainability goals and supporting strong action on climate change by world leaders," the association said.

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Implications of the NLRB's reconsideration of grad student unionization (essay)

The recent resignation of the president of the University of Missouri System and the chancellor of its Columbia campus followed a strike of sorts by university football players. While the athletes did so without benefit of a union, their success draws attention to the way students who have organized -- for collective bargaining or otherwise -- can significantly alter a university’s policies.

In fact, grad students at Missouri had already successfully campaigned against a plan to terminate summarily their health insurance (the administration rescinded the edict for this year), and they continue to seek a longer-term insurance commitment, better pay and full tuition waivers -- as well as to pursue unionization.

For graduate students at private universities, the real action may occur in the wake of last month’s vote by the National Labor Relations Board to reconsider collective bargaining by teaching and research assistants at such institutions. The groundbreaking case involves the New School University in New York City and the United Auto Workers, and the NLRB’s final decision in the matter could have far-reaching implications.

The issue of grad student unionization at private higher education institutions has a curiously checkered history, reflecting political fortunes since World War II. In 1951, the NLRB declined to offer bargaining rights for private university employees, including academic personnel. Two decades later, however, the board reversed that ruling and declared that the federal labor laws covered academic employees in private institutions. In 2000, when the NLRB ruled that graduate teaching assistants are eligible for collective bargaining and can be considered employees, New York University became the first private university to recognize a graduate student union.

But in 2004, the NLRB changed course yet again, ruling that graduate teaching and research assistants at Brown University were not “employees” because “they have a primarily educational, not economic, relationship with their university.” Thus, when NYU’s initial contract expired, the university’s board declined to renew it in response to the intervening ruling concerning Brown. Keeping the players -- and the rules -- straight during this ever-changing saga has understandably posed a challenge.

To put the issue of grad student unionization at private institutions in a broader context, the legal status of full-time, tenure-track professors has remained far more consistent. Most of those professors are effectively barred from unionizing in the private sector by the Supreme Court’s 35-year-old ruling in the Yeshiva University case, under which faculty members at independent campuses are considered to be “managers” because of their involvement in the governance of their institutions. While there has been much recent discussion of possible reopening of the Yeshiva ruling, such a prospect seems increasingly unlikely.

Indeed, as the Supreme Court in its current term revisits the status of public school unions among K-12 teachers, the primacy of Yeshiva today seems, in most cases, if anything even clearer than it was a decade ago. (I say, “in most cases” because a handful of private campuses, such as Goddard College in Vermont, have voluntarily recognized bargaining efforts by its professors and have simply declined to oppose union efforts. In addition, the labor board indicated last December its potential readiness, specifically in the case of Pacific Lutheran University, to distinguish Yeshiva in certain cases that involve religiously affiliated institutions and non-tenure-track faculty whose role clearly involves less “managerial authority” than that of tenured professors.)

Between the two extremes of graduate students, on the one hand, and full-time faculty members, on the other, lies the anomalous legal status of adjuncts and part-time faculty. Especially in the Boston and Washington regions, aggressive organizing activity by unions such as Service Employees International Union and United Auto Workers has greatly expanded bargaining rights for such contingent faculty, including not only improved salaries and working conditions but even opportunities for promotion to tenure-track positions. Most academic employers at such independent campuses as American University, Georgetown University, Tufts University and a host of others have welcomed such efforts and have been quick to negotiate bargaining agreements.

The legal landscape differs sharply when it comes to unionization in the public sector. Full-time professors, adjuncts and graduate students are mainly either covered by state-enacted public employee bargaining laws or are barred from unionizing by “right to work” legislation. At this point, 28 states have embraced or sanction public employee bargaining, and many public universities have long had unionized graduate teaching assistants. Enjoying hybrid status, some graduate students at three New York private universities (Alfred, Cornell and Syracuse) are already covered by a union contract because they are enrolled at academic units of the State University of New York within those three affiliated upstate private institutions.

The Shape of Things to Come

What will be the long-term implications of NLRB’s recent agreement to reconsider whether graduate assistants at all private institutions are entitled to collective bargaining? Until the board actually rules, the ramifications will remain to be fully appraised. And even then, given the tortured and protracted history of the central issue, it seems unlikely that in this area the board would issue detailed guidance to potential institutions and unions.

Rather, we might expect the shaping of that emerging landscape would generally follow the experience within public colleges and universities. We should also recognize that each state is free to adopt whatever laws and regulations it may choose to govern graduate student organizing, as with full-time and adjunct faculty, including the option to be either more or less welcoming to graduate organizing than it is with regard to other public-sector teachers. The potential for such state-level regulatory variation does not, however, necessarily make the eventual outcome any easier to predict or assess.

Meanwhile, as we await further developments from the NLRB, the higher education community remains sharply divided on this issue. Groups like the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Universities are, for example, diametrically opposed in this respect, despite concordance on many other matters like race-sensitive admissions.

Those boards and administrators (and some faculty groups) that strongly oppose graduate student organizing argue that unionization would inevitably intrude upon the optimally collegial professor-student relationship and jeopardize academic freedom. Harvard University President Drew Faust may have put it most forcefully in a recent Harvard Crimson interview: “We really think that it’s a mistake for graduate students to unionize, that it changes a mentoring relationship between faculty and students into a labor relationship, which is not appropriate [and] is not what is represented by the experience of graduate students in the university.” (It is also worth noting that despite their resistance to unionization, a few major private universities have made commendable efforts to enhance both tangible and intangible benefits for graduated student employees. Graduate Students United at the University of Chicago, for example, won substantial pay raises for its members after a series of rallies and “teach outs.”)

On the other side of the table, proponents of the revised NLRB policy argue with equal force that the universities’ fears are at least exaggerated if not wholly misplaced. Such advocates insist that several decades of experience at major public research campuses simply have not documented such concerns. Moreover, the steady explosion of student indebtedness, increased demands upon the time and energy of already burdened graduates, and diminished opportunities for advancement only underscore the case for unionization.

In fact, amid the seemingly endless debates about graduate student unionization, several practical issues have been somewhat overlooked. For one, the growing costs of graduate education (especially for independent institutions) may well diminish racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity at a time when the higher education community seeks greater inclusiveness and students are demanding it. Graduate student organizers argue that the mounting financial burdens on such students will inevitably and regrettably diminish diversity.

Indeed, graduate student unionization would appear to enhance prospects both for greater diversity and for the mitigation of onerous financial burdens. Speaking in support of organizing efforts for TAs and RAs, Matt Canfield (an NYU doctoral student and member of the Student Organizing Committee) has argued that “academia will become closed off to people of color, and people with children -- and we want to be ensure that NYU reflects the diversity of the city we’re in.”

In addition, while graduate teaching assistants and graduate research assistants are often treated as homogeneous, there may be reasons for separately reviewing their respective statuses. The mere fact of unionization and the evolution of contract negotiations and board approval could well differentiate more sharply the respective roles and responsibilities of graduate teaching assistants, on one hand, and advanced students who aid laboratory research, on the other. The distinction, though subtle, nonetheless offers clarity. For example, under the exemplary personnel policies of the University of California at Los Angeles, TAs “serve an apprenticeship under the tutelage and supervision of regular faculty members who are responsible for curriculum and instruction in the university,” while RAs “are selected on the basis of scholastic achievement and promise as creative scholars and serve an apprenticeship under the direction and supervision of a faculty member.”

Whatever the NLRB’s final decision and its implications, it’s clear that grad students remain relatively overworked and underpaid -- at the bottom of the academic food chain, one might say. The reality is that they make up a significant portion of the instructional workforce in higher education. The Coalition of Graduate Employee Unions ventures that between half and three-quarters of all university classes are actually taught by graduate assistants or contingent faculty.

Thus, as we await further developments in this already complex and contentious field of law and policy, we might invoke the wisdom of Lisa Simpson (of The Simpsons) regarding student unionization.

As Lisa throws bread on the ground to feed some ducks, a hungry student cohort converges, while a professor with a whip appears and barks, “No food for you grad students until you grade 3,000 papers.” Lisa should claim the final word.

Robert M. O’Neil is the former president of the University of Virginia and of the University of Wisconsin System, former director of the Ford Foundation’s Difficult Dialogues Initiative, and former general counsel of the American Association of University Professors. He is currently a senior fellow at the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities.

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U of Montana Will Cut 201 Positions

The University of Montana on Tuesday announced plans to cut 201 full-time positions -- 52 of them faculty slots -- to deal with enrollment declines, NBC News Montana reported. Some positions may be currently vacant. Many professors say the cuts appear likely to disproportionately impact liberal arts programs, although other programs face cuts, too. Among the liberal arts departments slated for cuts: anthropology, English, geography, liberal studies, art and political science, as well as graduate programs in foreign languages.

Allegations Lead Louisville to Suspend Official

The University of Louisville has suspended Deborah Dietzler as director of alumni affairs after allegations surfaced that, in a similar position at the University of Georgia, she used taxpayer funds to pay for trips to run marathons, The Louisville Courier-Journal reported. An audit at Georgia found that Dietzler, after signing up to run marathons in several cities, had her staff set up meetings in those cities so she could bill the university for her travel. Dietzler's lawyer said that she “strongly denies any suggestion or claim that she intentionally violated any rule or policy at” Georgia.

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Florida State President Criticizes 'Hunting Ground'

The documentary The Hunting Ground "contains major distortions and glaring omissions," John Thrasher, Florida State University's president, said in a statement Monday, comparing the film to Rolling Stone's botched attempt at reporting on sexual assault at the University of Virginia.

"It’s been barely seven months since Rolling Stone retracted its ill-fated University of Virginia fraternity rape story after revelations that it took a victim’s story at face value without getting the other side or checking the details with other sources, including the accused," Thrasher said in the statement. "Columbia University Journalism School, which examined the magazine’s reporting and editing of the piece, concluded that Rolling Stone had 'set aside or rationalized as unnecessary essential practices of reporting.' We believe the same is true with The Hunting Ground."

The film, released theatrically earlier this year, received critical acclaim and will air on CNN on Sunday. It examines the issue of campus sexual assault, in particular at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where the documentary’s two primary subjects were students. In the film, the two students travel around the country inspiring other victims to use the gender discrimination law Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to hold colleges accountable for mishandling cases of sexual assault. Along the way, the documentary takes frequent detours to call out a number of other institutions, including Florida State University, for mishandling or ignoring the issue.

The section of documentary about Florida State focuses on an assault allegedly committed by Jameis Winston, a former star player for the university's football team. While Winston was not charged with a crime, the university and local police have received much criticism for their handling of the allegations. 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 of taking steps to "hide, and then hinder" the criminal investigation into the allegations against Winston.

The Hunting Ground features the first interview with the student who accused Winston of rape. That student -- who had attempted to remain anonymous during the initial investigation but was later outed by Florida State fans and Winston's lawyer -- is now suing Florida State.

"FSU plays a prominent part in the film in a one-sided segment accusing Tallahassee police and the university of ignoring sexual assault allegations against former quarterback Jameis Winston to protect the athletic program," Thrasher stated. "CNN will be airing a piece of advocacy that is more about blame and emotion than accuracy, fairness and inclusion. This is a lost opportunity to have a full, fair and meaningful discussion on the national stage about the complex issue of sexual assault on college campuses."

In his statement, Thrasher did not specify what the documentary gets wrong about the case. On Monday, the film's official Twitter account tweeted a response, saying the film's producers were not surprised by the president's comments as the "facts make FSU look pretty bad."

This is not the first time the filmmakers have had to defend The Hunting Ground against critics. Earlier this year, several university presidents complained that they were not given enough time to respond to the production team's interview requests. In June, the producers posted a detailed fact page on the film's website after Slate published an article questioning some of the documentary's claims. Last week, 19 Harvard professors released a lengthy statement calling the documentary "propaganda," and criticizing the film's portrayal of an accused student's case.

"It’s obvious that Florida State University does not want the public to see the film because it shows how they protected their star quarterback against allegations of rape," the filmmakers said in a statement Tuesday. "Rather than attacking the film, we encourage President Thrasher to respond as other college presidents have, such as those from Harvard, Montana, Amherst and Alaska, by acknowledging the undisputed gravity of this problem and taking measures to prevent it. Thrasher should stop blaming the messenger and focus on the message.”

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Foundation proposes a national transfer pathway partnership

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Edvance Foundation calls for a national college transfer partnership to improve graduation rates and access to four-year institutions.


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