diversity

Western Kentucky Investigates Racist Note

Western Kentucky University is investigating a note left under the door of Michelle Jones, an assistant dean, The Bowling Green Daily News reported. The note criticized Jones for being black and said that she should go to Africa. Provost David Lee said the university was "determined to find the person who's responsible for this."

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Competing student groups debate the American flag and appropriate memorial for 9/11

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College Republicans plant 2,997 flags on campus. Many are removed and trashed. Another student group questions the memorial and posts fliers to honor the Iraqis killed after U.S. invasion.

Making college work for students with autism (essay)

For graduating high school seniors who are entering college this fall, it is an exciting time. Possibilities have been opened! Yet now new concerns arise: Have they chosen the right college? Will they thrive?

These are hard questions for any young adult, but for those with autism, the stakes are especially high. A 2015 Autism Speaks report found that only 30 percent of high school graduates with autism ever attend a two- or four-year college, and those that do fare poorly. Research suggests that 80 percent of them never graduate. Furthermore, only 32 percent of high school graduates with autism find paying work within two years of graduating high school. This need not be. Half of all individuals with autism have average or above-average intelligence. They can do the work. The problem is not the students. It’s the colleges.

We come to this issue from an unusual perspective. One of us, Elizabeth, studies at Pasadena City College and has autism. The other, Margaret, teaches at California State University at Los Angeles, and -- in addition to being Elizabeth’s mother -- has worked with students on and off the spectrum. Together, we have seen the many ways that colleges fail students with autism.

Federal legislation, including the Americans With Disabilities Act, mandates that colleges provide reasonable accommodations for disabled students. But common accommodations, such as providing a quiet exam setting, don’t adequately address the problems faced by many students with autism.

As autism scholars Ernst VanBergeijk, Ami Klin and Fred Volkmar note, autism is a social disability. The inherent qualities of autism -- resistance to change, sensitive sensory systems, weakness at reading social cues and a tendency to take language literally -- interfere with communication and social engagement. A quiet exam room will not help students overcome those barriers. The problems students with autism face are more insidious.

Elizabeth, for example, struggles with understanding if professors are being sarcastic or rhetorical. Uncertain, she often responds too much or too little. When one professor expressed frustration at her eager hand raising, she asked privately if he would signal her when he wasn’t being serious or didn’t require a response. “No,” he said. “I don’t need to change my teaching for you, and you need to learn sarcasm.”

It would be easy to regard Elizabeth’s experience as exceptional, the product of one unsympathetic professor. Yet research out of Australia by Ru Ying Cai and Amanda L. Richdale confirms how common such experiences are. In focus groups, autistic college students told story after story about metaphorical or abstract language leading to confusion, as well as loud, active classrooms challenging their abilities to focus on learning. For many, the frustrations became too great, leading to stress, anxiety and regrettable outcomes. However, when students felt their social needs were met -- in particular when faculty members proved willing to modify their teaching style -- students had much more positive experiences.

But American professors are not required to modify their teaching style for disabled students, and colleges are not required to think about the social, communicative needs of any students, let alone those with autism. Those things are not considered reasonable accommodations. But if autism is indeed a social disability, then denying the social needs of autistic students is inherently unreasonable.

It would help if faculty members understood how autism affects learning. But professors are busy. They juggle many demands, and professional development is often low on their to-do lists. At Margaret’s university -- which houses an outstanding center for teaching and learning development -- professional development seminars are often poorly attended, especially those focused on helping students with special needs. At one seminar on working with hearing-impaired students, Margaret was one of three instructors to show up, and if our conversations with colleagues and peers are indicative, then Margaret’s experience is a common one. Even when given the opportunity to learn more about the needs of disabled students, professors turn those choices down.

Some positive changes are underway. More than 100 colleges now offer programs for students with autism, but most of them are private, expensive, residential programs. Meanwhile, research suggests that up to 80 percent of college students with autism at one point filter through community colleges, where students, often still highly dependent on family support, can live at home. Those institutions generally offer fewer resources for students with autism. If we are to meet the needs of neurodiverse students, public community colleges will need to lead the way.

In these days when most community college disability offices are underfunded -- Elizabeth’s community college does not even provide note takers -- meeting the needs of students with autism may seem daunting. But meaningful institutional changes do not need to strain budgets. For Elizabeth, the greatest support has often come from students who have chosen to act as social interpreters. A whispered word or two is often all she needs to better and more appropriately engage with her curriculum. Colleges like California State University at Fullerton already have mentorship programs that pair neurotypical and neuroatypical classmates.

We recommend expanding such programs so that peer mentors -- perhaps those offered the coveted privilege of priority registration -- work side by side with autistic students in the classroom. Of course, that brings us back to the privacy concerns voiced earlier. Peer mentors can only work with students who are willing to self-identify in the classroom as having autism, which is why autistic students themselves must also be involved in making campuses more responsive to their needs -- and that will only happen when students with autism bring neurodiversity into conversations about campus diversity.

Until that happens, faculty can do a lot to foster feelings of safety and inclusion for all students -- both with autism and without. Elizabeth advocates for simple kindness, acceptance and the understanding that some disabilities are invisible. In Margaret’s classes, she announces on day one that students registered with the school’s disability office should feel free to talk to her about not just the accommodations they may legally require but also about other things she can do to make her courses work for them. She shares -- with Elizabeth’s permission -- the struggles Elizabeth has faced in education, and she urges students to see her as someone who really wants to help them succeed.

Work by Nicholas Gelbar, Isaac Smith and Brian Reichow offers faculty members other suggestions for helping students on the spectrum: incorporate universal design into curriculum and assignments. As much as possible, use concrete language in both lectures and the syllabus. Break tasks down into more steps, provide greater organizational support, realize that group work, public speaking and active classrooms (such popular buzzwords in today’s curricular development) may offer particular challenges for students who struggle socially and who do not thrive in environments demanding rapid transitions. In other words, when dealing with students whose disability makes flexibility extremely difficult, faculty members must be the flexible ones. They must also take responsibility for educating themselves about neurodiversity, and if that seems too hard, they can do one last thing. They can defer to autistic students who do understand their own needs, and they can give those students the support they ask for.

One thing is undeniable: without significant changes, the traditional gateway to greater community inclusion and financial security will remain closed to people with autism. And that’s a tragedy, because those with autism have a lot to offer -- not just to our colleges, but also to our nation’s economy. We all win when everyone can compete and contribute.

Elizabeth Finnegan is a student at Pasadena City College. Margaret Finnegan teaches at California State University at Los Angeles. She is the author of Selling Suffrage: Consumer Culture and Votes for Women (Columbia University Press, 1999), and her work has appeared in College Communication and Composition, American Quarterly and other publications.

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iStock/Jason Enterline

U of Oregon Removes Name of Klan Leader From Dorm

The board of the University of Oregon voted Thursday to remove the name of Frederic Dunn (right) from a dormitory that has for years honored him, The Register-Guard reported. Dunn was a professor of classics at the university in the 1920s and 1930s and was respected for his teaching and scholarship. He was also a leader -- with the title “exalted cyclops” -- of the Ku Klux Klan in the region. Black students have been pushing for his name to be removed from the dormitory. The board delayed until later in the fall a decision on a building named for Matthew Deady, one of the university's founders and one who held pro-slavery views.

Ursinus Board Chair Quits Amid Uproar Over His Tweets

Michael C. Marcon, facing criticism over his comments on Twitter, resigned Thursday as chair of the Ursinus College board. Marcon met with students and faculty members in recent days to try to reassure them, but many have said he should not remain as board chair, and one other board member already quit in protest over the tweets. Marcon, an insurance executive, has made tweets about who should and shouldn't wear yoga pants, and written that Caitlyn Jenner's speaking fees mean there is no gender wage gap.

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More faculty of color can and should be in the top ranks of universities (essay)

Despite the excuses that administrators often give, a commitment to diversity can go beyond lip service and translate into more faculty of color in tenure-track, tenured, full professor and upper administrative ranks, argues Adia Harvey Wingfield.

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U of Northern Colorado Will Abandon Bias Unit

The University of Northern Colorado has announced that it is abandoning its separate bias response team and plans to deal with bias concerns through other university divisions. Many colleges have created bias response teams, but Northern Colorado's has been criticized for raising questions about the actions and statements of faculty members and students in class -- and many have expressed fears that the work of the team compromised academic freedom.

Kay Norton, president of the university, addressed the topic in her annual fall address to the campus. "Our new approach will uphold the principles of free speech and academic freedom as well as our commitment to create a safe and supportive environment for students. It will address all student concerns not covered by the Discrimination Complaint Procedures, and we will no longer have a separate process for bias-related concerns," she said. "Free speech and academic freedom fuel the ferment of ideas, insights and discoveries that emerge from university communities, and we must do all we can to encourage this ferment. We have an ongoing obligation to talk openly about the inherent tension between upholding academic freedom and building community. These are hard conversations, but this tension is what allows us to be a university community."

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Northern Kentucky Students Protest 'White Week'

Students at Northern Kentucky University are protesting fliers that were placed on campus next to others that promoted "Welcome Black Week" activities for black students. The unofficial fliers advertised "Welcome White Week."

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Indiana U Hire Criticized for Not Being Native American

Native American alumni of Indiana University at Bloomington are criticizing the hiring of someone who is not Native American for the position of director of the First Nations Educational and Cultural Center (logo at right), the Associated Press reported. Nicholas Belle, the new director, did volunteer at the center when he was a student and has also spent time on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. But some students and alumni said they need someone who understands firsthand the kind of discrimination faced by Native American students. Belle did not respond to a request for comment, and the university released a statement noting that it does not discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity, among other factors, in hiring.

U of Kentucky will uncover mural it covered over concerns of depiction of slavery

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Many black students were angered by its depiction of slavery. University says context and other works of art will be added.

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