Colleges settle free speech lawsuits as FIRE promises more litigation

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Three colleges sued over charges that they were limiting free speech rights have settled by paying out funds and changing policies.

Controversial President Resigns at Brewton-Parker

Ergun Caner announced this week that he was stepping down as president of Brewton-Parker College, after only a year in office. During that year, Caner led a process of appealing a threat by the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges to strip the college's accreditation. On an appeal, the accreditor in December preserved the accreditation, and removed the college's probation status. Caner cited that success in announcing his resignation, but said he was leaving because he could not recover from the July suicide of one of his sons, who was 15. "Brewton-Parker College cannot become a healthy, growing and stable college under the leadership of a man who is broken," he said. "And I am admitting to you that I am broken. I can’t get over his death, and I am not sure I want to. I do know that I cannot muster the fight needed to be the leader of our college. My family and my heart need healing, and you deserve better."

Brewton-Parker is a Baptist college in Georgia and Caner is a controversial figure in evangelical Christian circles. He has written and spoken out about growing up Muslim and converting to Christianity -- a story that many have found inspiring. But some religious bloggers have questioned some parts of his story, prompting considerable debate and scrutiny. When the college hired Caner in December 2013, the press release quoted a trustee as saying: “We didn’t consider Dr. Caner in spite of the attacks; we elected him because of them. He has endured relentless and pagan attacks like a warrior. We need a warrior as our next president.”


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U. of Oregon Releases 22,000 Pages of Private Records

The University of Oregon is investigating why it released 22,000 pages of information with confidential information about students and faculty members, The Oregonian reported. Two employees have been placed on leave as a result. The documents were given to a faculty member who requested them as public records. But the university did not go through the documents to remove confidential information that the institution was not required to release. The university has asked the faculty member not to release the documents further.


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Columbia College Adjuncts Drop Illinois Education Association

Members of Columbia College’s part-time faculty association, “P-Fac,” voted 232 to 50 to disaffiliate from the Illinois Education Association, they announced Wednesday. Just about half of eligible members participated in the vote. Diana Vallera, P-Fac president, said in a statement that the election was really about the ability of “part-time and contingent faculty to control their own destiny.” She said remaining part of the Illinois Education Association, which is affiliated with the National Education Association, was a “roadblock to effective advocacy for our members.”

P-Fac had raised concerns in recent months about staff members at Columbia College trying to secure teaching assignments that adjuncts wanted. The part-time faculty union worried about the Illinois Education Association’s ability to represent members’ concerns impartially, since the staff union, United Staff of Columbia College, also is affiliated with the Illinois Education Association. The Illinois Education Association said in a statement that it values “the right of [union] members to vote on important issues and to have the results of their vote respected.” But the association also said members had raised “significant” concerns about the fairness of the election process. It said it will conduct an investigation in coming weeks into those complaints. In the interim, the association said it will “continue to honor our commitments to P-fac members and provide updates as appropriate.”

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75 Percent of Campuses Employ Armed Officers

Violent crime on college campuses is decreasing, but the number of sworn and armed police officers on campuses continues to rise, according to a new report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The report was based on the 2011-12 Survey of Campus Law Enforcement Agencies, and included responses and Clery data from more than 900 U.S. four-year colleges and universities that enroll 2,500 or more students.

Nearly 70 percent of colleges and universities operated full law-enforcement agencies in 2012, and 94 percent of those officers are authorized to use a firearm. More than 90 percent of public institutions and 38 percent of private institutions in 2012 used sworn officers. In total, 75 percent of campuses said they used armed officers in 2012, compared to the 68 percent of colleges when the survey was last conducted in 2005. In 2012, campus agencies recorded 45 violent crimes per 100,000 students, a 27 percent decrease from 2005.

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Mandatory leaves for mental health conditions raise discrimination concerns

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Recent court cases, including a discrimination settlement at Quinnipiac University, suggest that colleges have to consider alternatives to forcing a student with a mental health condition to withdraw. 

Higher Ed and Guests at State of the Union

President Obama, like many presidents over the last 25 or so years, invites selected guests -- whose stories reflect administration priorities --  to sit with the First Lady during the State of the Union address. This year there are several higher education connections. Chelsey Davis (at right) is a student at Pellissippi State Community College at a time when President Obama is pushing a plan to make two years of community college free. Bill Elder is a medical student and a Stanford University graduate who was never expected to reach adulthood because of his cystic fibrosis. His story, the White House says, reflects the value of medical research and education. Also reflecting an emphasis on education is Anthony Mendez, the first in his family to graduate from high school and now a freshman at the University of Hartford. And Ana Zamora is a "DREAM" student, among those brought to the country at a young age but lacking permanent legal status, although they have gained some new rights under the Obama administration.

Members of Congress also get guest seats. New York Magazine reported that Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, is bringing Emma Sulkowicz, the Columbia University student who protested campus policies on sexual assault by dragging a mattress with her for an entire semester. Sulkowicz says that the mattress symbolizes the weight she carries because of the university's failure to punish the student she says raped her. (He denies that.)




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A Basketball Team's Expensive Trip to the Bahamas

The University of Kentucky spent nearly $800,000 on a trip to the Bahamas for the basketball team to play exhibition games, The Louisville Courier-Journal reported. While other colleges spend big on exhibition games in the Bahamas, the Kentucky travels cost much more than similar trips by other universities' teams that the newspaper found cost $154,000 or $38,000. Why were the Kentucky costs so high? The university didn't only pay for its own travel, but for the travel and expenses of the three teams it played: national teams of the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, and Champagne Chalons-Reims Basket, a French professional team. The Courier-Journal reported that this practice of paying for opposing teams' travel was a new one for American college basketball.

There were other costs as well. Coach John Calipari, for example, had a $1,550-per night hotel suite.


NCAA Restores Penn State's Wins Under Paterno

As part of a court settlement, the National Collegiate Athletic Association has restored the 112 wins it previously vacated at Pennsylvania State University following former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky's conviction on 45 counts of child abuse in 2012. Nearly all of the wins took place under the late Joe Paterno, a revered coach at Penn State and a key figure in the Sandusky scandal. The NCAA vacated the wins as part of a series of sanctions that also included suspending the university from participating in postseason games and fining the institution $60 million.

That fine became the focus of a lawsuit, which was originally meant to determine where the penalty should be spent but gradually became a referendum on the NCAA's authority to impose sanctions in the first place. The NCAA has since walked back many of the sanctions, including ending Penn State's postseason ban in September, two years earlier than what the punishment called for. "Today is a victory for the Penn State nation," Jake Corman, a Pennsylvania senator, told Reuters. "The NCAA has surrendered."

In a statement Friday, the NCAA said the agreement reaffirms its authority to act, and that the $60 million fine will be used to support child abuse prevention and treatment programs. "Continuing this litigation would further delay the distribution of funds to child sexual abuse survivors for years, undermining the very intent of the fine,” said Harris Pastides, president at the University of South Carolina and the new Division I Board of Directors chair. “While others will focus on the return of wins, our top priority is on protecting, educating, and nurturing young people.”

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Board Pushes Out President of North Carolina System

The University of North Carolina's Board of Governors announced Friday that Thomas G. Ross would leave his job as the system's president early next year, and its failure to explain the reasons for Ross's departure prompted assertions that he was forced out. Ross was appointed president in 2010, just as Republicans first began making significant gains in North Carolina's traditionally Democratically controlled legislature. When Republicans took control of both houses of the legislature in 2012, the university -- and Ross as its leader -- faced intense scrutiny from lawmakers who believed UNC had been treated with kid gloves by Democratic politicians.

In the last year, he appeared to have weathered the political pressure and to have begun to persuade the new Republican majority of UNC's importance to the state economy, even as a series of controversies buffeted the university. The joint statement from the university and Ross said that his departure had nothing to do with his performance, but board leaders insisted that it had nothing to do with politics, either.

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