Black students criticize racism protests organized by white students

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Demonstrations against racism at two universities were canceled after black students complained about the rallies being organized without their involvement.

Are colleges losing ground to entities focused more sharply on workforce skills? (essay)

“It is important to remember that amateurs built the ark and it was the professionals that built the Titanic.”
-- Ben Carson

The above quotation is my favorite snapshot from the presidential campaign so far, and Ben Carson is involved in many of my other favorite moments, from continuing to insist that the Egyptians built the pyramids to store grain to the controversy over whether young Ben Carson actually attempted to stab a friend in a stomach.

Due to his lack of training in Egyptology and -- more important -- politics, Dr. Carson has a vested interest in elevating amateurs at the expense of professionals (including, presumably, medical professionals like himself -- for the record, it’s not clear if Carson takes the same position on neurosurgery). Nevertheless, the apparent appeal of such populist positions this election cycle demonstrates that Carson is giving voice to the frustrations of millions of American who are credulous enough to take phone calls from pollsters.


Some have asked whether we’re seeing a similar trend in higher education. Are professionals at colleges and universities taking a backseat while Americans learn from Gentle Ben and other amateurs?

Back in April, LinkedIn spent $1.5 billion to acquire, a library of more than 5,000 online courses and 250,000 video tutorials on business, technology and creative skills. Udemy is home to over 30,000 amateur courses in 80 languages, including Jimmy Naraine’s top-selling course Double Your Confidence and Self-Esteem, and reported annual revenue growth of 160 percent in 2014 and 200 percent in 2015. (I have a feeling that Ben Carson and Jimmy Naraine share a similar demographic appeal.)

In IT, there’s Pluralsight, offering 3,700 IT courses, where revenue is doubling annually and a planned IPO should value the company over $1 billion. Finally, there’s Udacity, which provides IT courses and “nanodegrees” and recently announced both 1,000 nanodegree graduates as well as a financing that valued the company over $1 billion. These fast-growing companies are convincing millions of Americans that their educational products and programs are a good investment without regard to the involvement of faculty members or colleges and universities.

All this begs the question: Have we reached amateur hour in higher education?

The answer depends very much on how we define expertise. College and university professors are undoubtedly the leading experts in their domains of knowledge, particularly as it pertains to published books and research. Some (but far from all) are also leading experts on effective instruction and assessment.

But few college and university faculty members (or programs or departments or schools) can credibly claim expertise as to the competencies employers are seeking in new hires, particularly for easier-to-assess technical and hard skills. In this area, companies like Udacity -- which builds its nanodegrees with employers like Google -- can stake a firmer claim to “expertise.”

In fact, virtually any “amateur” provider that is successful in engaging employers in program development and delivery can credibly stake a greater claim to this expertise than even (or especially) our oldest and most prestigious institutions. This leaves colleges and universities in the uncomfortable position of “amateurs” -- stewing over comments from the likes of Google’s senior VP of people operations (grades in degree programs are “worthless as a criteria for hiring”) and partnering with employer-facing prehire training intermediaries like Galvanize or ProSky in order to remain relevant to students.

This is not to say that skyrocketing interest in Udacity and its brethren demonstrates an elevation of amateurs at the expense of experts. Rather, it is indicative of a shift in the type of expertise most valued in the postsecondary education market. While faculty expertise on subject matter and instruction is often profound, the value for students is increasingly viewed as abstract or frivolous. In contrast, expertise on the competencies in demand by employers is increasingly viewed as purposeful, dynamic and attractive -- both in terms of clarity of interface, as well as providing a full-stack offering.


“We needed more skill in the workforce. We turned to colleges and said, ‘You have a new mission.’ Higher education really is a workforce-development system. It doesn’t like to see itself that way.”
-- Anthony Carnevale, director, Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce

Colleges and universities have resisted their role in workforce development primarily due to the historic association of workforce development with “skill” development, and the association of “skills” with matters “vocational.” Our isomorphic view of what it means to be an excellent institution of higher education doesn’t come close to comprising vocational skill development.

But you won’t be surprised to learn that the market is moving faster than colleges and universities. Providers like Udacity, Galvanize and ProSky are delivering the type of expertise most valued by students. They are doing this not only by connecting with employers, but also by wrapping themselves in the mantle of workforce development and recognizing that “skills” also comprise higher-level executive function capabilities such as critical thinking and problem solving.

Colleges and universities that dismiss these providers as limited to vocational skills -- the purported amateurs” of the sector -- may have Jimmy Naraine’s confidence, but it’s a false confidence. Institutions that wish to float like an ark rather than sink like the Titanic on the choppy seas ahead should learn from Ben Carson and take a stab at connecting with employers.

Ryan Craig is managing director at University Ventures, a fund focused on innovation from within higher education.

San Francisco State Halts Sale of 'Pouring Rights'

Student activism has stymied a university's plans to sell "pouring rights" to a soda company. San Francisco State University had planned to sell the right to be the main soda vendor on campus to the highest bidder. The practice is common among colleges and businesses.

The country's two major soda brands, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, were both competing for the deal. But students have protested the university's plans, even showing up outside at a meeting of university and Coca-Cola officials last month waving signs reading "student rights, not pouring rights," according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Activists objected to the college supporting, though pouring rights and lucrative advertising deals at university sports venues (that would have been bundled with the pouring rights), sugary drink manufacturers, with many students highlighting how soda is widely seen as an unhealthy beverage contributing to obesity.

President Les Wong announced Thursday that San Francisco State no longer plans to sell pouring rights to a beverage company, largely due to student activism.

"After listening carefully to the concerns and information I received from our students, faculty and staff, I have decided not to move forward with the process of establishing a partnership with a beverage company," Wong said in a statement. "This decision will mean the loss of potential funding for student programs, scholarships and athletics. I remain committed to finding ways to generate additional financial support for our students and programs, and I hope that students will join me in this effort."

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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.


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