Right to marriage ruling shows impact of humanities 'basic research' (essay)

Are the humanities useless? Or can they produce “inventions” like the natural sciences? If our only understanding of invention is a technological product, perhaps the humanities are useless. But if we include new insights into culture, insights that transform our relationship with the world around us, then the humanities have real value.

Perhaps nowhere was this made more clear than in last week’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that marriage is a fundamental right under the U.S. Constitution. The court’s decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, upholds the historical significance of marriage and recognizes the sanctity of the intimate relationships marriage makes possible.

Early in his decision, Justice Kennedy cites three historians’ works: Nancy Cott’s Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation (2000), Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage: A History (2005), and Hendrik Hartog’s Man & Wife in America: A History (2000).

These scholars’ insights -- their “inventions” of historical understanding -- did not take place in a vacuum. They were the result of countless doctoral dissertations and “useless” journal articles.

Cott, Coontz and Hartog relied on and contributed to a vibrant community of scholars who, over the past few decades, sought to make sense of the history of American families. Scholars formed intellectual networks and new journals. They criticized each other’s work and refined understanding. They debated each other in print and at conferences.

And, over time, slowly and painstakingly, they taught us that American family life has a history, that the ways in which husbands and wives and parents and children related to each other, and the legal and cultural contexts that shaped those relations, changed over time. Like everything else, families are part of culture.

In short, the Supreme Court relied on the very academic infrastructure for research that is now being undermined by public defunding and efforts to make universities more focused on workforce training. It is the kind of academic infrastructure that would be threatened by efforts, such as those in Wisconsin, to weaken the tenure and shared governance protections that sustain academic freedom.

For Justice Kennedy, scholars’ “new insights have strengthened, not weakened, the institution of marriage.” Historians have demonstrated how marriage, once a way to organize family resources or a method by which men exercised governance over their dependents, gave way in the wake of the American Revolution to something more egalitarian and more affectionate.

In fact, our ideal of marriage as a relationship between two loving people deeply committed to each other was reinforced and popularized by the American Revolution, which challenged inherited ideas of inequality not just in politics but throughout society.

Historians, of course, did not make this happen on their own. Were it not for all the same-sex couples who dared to come out of the closet, all the organizers who built a movement and all the people who brought cases in the first place, the issue would not have been before us.

But if it were not for scholars of marriage, Justice Kennedy may not have had the knowledge before him to reach his decision. The value of basic research in the humanities cannot be denied. We need to reinvest in our research infrastructure so that we can continue to generate insights that will help us make sense of our most pressing public questions. Basic research in the humanities, it turns out, has a tangible social impact.

Johann Neem is a professor of history at Western Washington University, an affiliate of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, and a visiting faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

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First-Generation Students and Academic Preparation

A new report from ACT and the Council for Opportunity in Education found that the vast majority of first-generation students who take ACT's college entrance exam plan to attend college, but about half of them are academically unprepared to succeed.

The report found 52 percent of ACT-tested first-generation college students in the 2014 high school graduating class failed to meet the four college readiness benchmarks set by the nonprofit testing organization. Overall 31 percent of all ACT-tested graduates failed to meet benchmarks in English, math, reading and science. More than 9 in 10 first-generation students who took the ACT said they plan to attend college.

"The upside of these findings is that as more first-generation students take the ACT, their access and exposure to the college admissions process is increasing," said Jim Larimore, ACT's chief officer for the advancement of underserved learners, in a news release. "But our research also shows that students' likelihood of enrolling in college right after high school increases based on the number of readiness benchmarks they meet."

The minimum scores students must earn on each of the ACT's four subject tests indicate that students have about a 75 percent change of earning a grade of C or higher in a typical credit-bearing, first-year college course in the corresponding area.

Scrutiny for Accreditors on Poor Student Outcomes

This has been a rough week for higher education accreditors. Days after a Wall Street Journal article raised questions about whether the agencies are doing enough to improve (or, alternatively, shut down) institutions that struggle to retain and graduate students, the committee that advises the U.S. education secretary on accreditation took up much the same theme Thursday at its semiannual session to review some accrediting bodies.

During a review of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, members of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity (NACIQI) -- led by a new student member, Simon J. Boehme -- listed colleges and universities that are in good standing with the commission despite having federal graduation rates of under 20 percent. Some committee members suggested that there should be "bright lines" on key indicators such as retention and graduation below which accreditors punish colleges, which is not typically how accreditation works now. (The discussions Thursday were resonant of similar conversations a decade ago, when then Education Secretary Margaret Spellings pushed NACIQI to put pressure on colleges about whether their students were learning enough, and suggested "bright lines" below which institutions should be penalized.

Officials of the Higher Learning Commission and some members of the accreditation panel noted that the federal graduation rates for some institutions capture small proportions of their total student bodies and may not be representative of how most students are faring. But there was little disagreement that retention and graduation rates at many institutions could be better, and that there was a role for accreditors to play in prodding the institutions they oversee to perform better. Discussion on Friday is likely to return to how that might be done most effectively (and without inappropriate federal intervention).

Also on Thursday, the accreditation panel voted to recommend that the education secretary strip federal recognition from the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, which has been locked for years in a confounding feud with the National League for Nursing over control and independence. Members of the panel expressed confusion over why the two groups had been unable to reach agreement, alternately wondering whether the two organizations were greedy and power hungry. More than one called it "embarrassing" for the nursing profession that they groups returned before the panel, for the third time in four years, having not resolved their differences.

Group's Call to Action for Accreditors

The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) has summoned regional and national accreditors to a July meeting that Judith Eaton, the group's president, described as an urgent "call to action."

Eaton, speaking at the group's summer workshop, said a U.S. Senate hearing and a Wall Street Journal article -- both last week -- contributed to the impetus for the meeting. During the hearing, Senators questioned why accreditors had not shut down Corinthian Colleges, a controversial for-profit that disintegrated during the last year. The Wall Street Journal article used public information requests to detail how accreditors continue to recognize hundreds of colleges with low graduation rates and high student loan default rates. "Last week was a game changer," said Eaton.

CHEA does not represent accreditors, but describes itself as a "national advocate and institutional voice for self-regulation of academic quality through accreditation." Eaton said the July meeting would feature a discussion by the accreditors it recognizes about graduation rates and student debt and defaults.

"We're being called on to do something more and different about protecting students," she said.

U.S. reminder to states: You must regulate higher ed

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After multiple delays, federal requirement on states to approve colleges within their borders is set to take effect -- as U.S. signals importance of state role.

Performance Funding in Massachusetts

Massachusetts' nine public universities will have some of their state support tied to a funding formula based on the number of students they graduate. The state board of higher education on Tuesday voted to approve the formula and will apply $5.6 million to it in the coming fiscal year.

The board described its approach to performance funding in a news release: "It is based on a complex formula of metrics and weights developed by NCHEMS, the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. An institution’s share of the funding will be determined in part by its five-year graduation rates, annual head count, full-time enrollment, year-over-year increases in degrees awarded, the numbers of students who reach 30 and 60 credit hours each year (with additional points awarded for low-income students who qualify for federal Pell Grants), as well as numbers and types of degrees awarded (with additional points awarded for degrees in 'priority fields' such as STEM, health, business and education). Campuses are also awarded points for 'degree productivity,' the cost of producing a degree per $100,000 in total revenue."

Community colleges in Massachusetts have received some performance funding since 2013. While the formulas are different, the board said both seek to close achievement gaps and to improve the graduation rates of underrepresented minority and low-income students.

Nursing Accreditor Faces Loss of U.S. Recognition

An Education Department report urges the panel that advises the education secretary on accreditation issues to terminate federal recognition of the agency that accredits nursing programs and schools, known as the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing. The staff report to the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity is the latest salvo in a long-running dispute between the commission and the National League for Nursing, the membership association for nursing educators, from which the accreditation commission separated in 1997 at the urging of the Education Department.

Then and now, the Education Department doubted whether the accrediting function operated with sufficient independence from the membership group. The two organizations have been unable to reach agreement over changes in the accreditor's bylaws that would allow it to operate independently.

In the report, released in advance of the advisory committee's June 1 meeting, Education Department staff members express concern "that ACEN could be subjected to interference in its operations by NLN or any other organization or individual other than its own Board of Commissioners," which "would severely affect the agency's compliance with the department's conflict of interest and separate and independent requirements."

SUNY Reaches K-12 on College Readiness

The State University of New York system will create and test a "universal diagnostic to assess and track college readiness among 10th- and 11th-grade students in diverse communities across the state," the system said this week. The pilot program will feature extra remedial support for underprepared students to help ensure they are ready for college when they graduate from high school. All participating students will have access to a forthcoming free online course from SUNY on college readiness. SUNY said it will soon begin accepting proposals for the universal diagnostic, which it hopes to have up and running by fall 2016.

Essay on how to talk about assessment in faculty job interviews

At many interviews for faculty jobs these days, you'll be asked about assessment. Melissa Dennihy offers some ideas on how to answer.

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Bill Gates on College Completion

Bill Gates is among a group of rich college dropouts people often cite when questioning the value of a college degree. He isn't buying that argument.

“Although I dropped out of college and got lucky pursuing a career in software, getting a degree is a much surer path to success,” Gates wrote on Wednesday.

Gates published two blog entries encouraging more people to earn college credentials to help them get jobs. He cited data from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, which projects a shortage in the U.S. of 11 million skilled workers with college degrees over the next decade.

The blog entries included a video interview (below) with Cheryl Hyman, the chancellor of the City Colleges of Chicago. Hyman, who dropped out of high school, has led an aggressive campaign to increase the urban community college system's low graduation rate, which stood at 7 percent when she arrived in 2010. It has since doubled to 14 percent.

“Cheryl and I discussed the need for colleges to create a less confusing course selection process. Students often waste time and valuable credit hours taking classes that don’t help them progress toward graduation because they don’t understand the degree requirements,” Gates wrote. “New personalized online guidance tools provide students with clear, semester-by-semester maps to graduation and a career.”

Gates also touted City Colleges' increased focus on careers, its addition of student supports and its efforts to redesign remedial math.


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