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Academics declare support for Donald Trump

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A group of professors and not-so-academic writers declare support for the GOP presidential candidate. But the list of signatures highlights Trump's limited appeal in academe, even among Republican presidential candidates.

3 Share Nobel Prize in Physics

Three researchers at American universities were this morning named winners of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics. Half of the award goes to David J. Thouless of the University of Washington. The other half is shared by F. Duncan M. Haldane of Princeton University and J. Michael Kosterlitz of Brown University.

A summary by the Nobel committee of the reason for the honor: "This year’s laureates opened the door on an unknown world where matter can assume strange states. They have used advanced mathematical methods to study unusual phases, or states, of matter, such as superconductors, superfluids or thin magnetic films. Thanks to their pioneering work, the hunt is now on for new and exotic phases of matter. Many people are hopeful of future applications in both materials science and electronics."

The full announcement may be found here.

An observation from an editor at Times Higher Education:

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Emory Updates Site on Holocaust Denial

Holocaust Denial on Trial, a website founded by an Emory University professor, Deborah Lipstadt, to refute the misleading claims of Holocaust deniers, has been redesigned and relaunched. The site was first created in 2005 by Emory and the university’s Tam Institute for Jewish Studies. The website catalogs the legal material arising from David Irving v. Penguin UK and Deborah Lipstadt, a libel claim brought against Lipstadt and her publisher in 1996 by Irving, a Holocaust denier. Lipstadt prevailed in the litigation and her story is now also told in a feature film, Denial.

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Researcher Denied Immunity in Harassment Case

A federal court has upheld an earlier court decision denying a researcher qualified immunity in a former student’s sexual harassment case against him and the University of Minnesota. The plaintiff, Stephanie Jenkins, was a Ph.D. candidate in natural resources and wildlife management at the university, and she's been public about her case. She alleges that starting in 2011 during a research trip to the Alaskan wilderness, Ted Swem -- then a scientist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services in Fairbanks assigned as her mentor for field research -- began to sexually harass her, repeatedly telling her, for instance, that he wanted to kiss her and date her, and taking a picture of her buttocks and calling it “scenery.” He allegedly encouraged her to drink alcohol at night and joked about sharing a tent.

Jenkins repeatedly denied his advances, according to the suit. Jenkins was assigned a shared office with Swem back on campus that fall at Minnesota, where he was working on a one-year research agreement. He allegedly continued to seek a relationship with Jenkins but refrained from sexual comments. Jenkins still tried to avoid being alone with Swem, according to the suit, working elsewhere. She eventually told her academic adviser about the alleged harassment and was transferred to a different office, though it wasn’t fully usable for some time, according to the suit.

In early 2012 Jenkins resigned from the university and has since been diagnosed with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The university has argued that Swem was not one of its employees at the time of the alleged harassment, while Swem has argued that he, as a federal actor, should not be personally liable in legal proceedings.

A panel of judges in a U.S. District Court in a decision released Monday reaffirmed an earlier ruling that Swem was not entitled to such immunity. “Although disputes of facts remain, when the facts relied on by the District Court are considered in the light most favorable to Jenkins, she sufficiently showed that Swem’s conduct toward her was unwelcome harassment, and that it was serious enough to alter a term or condition of her employment,” the decision says. “She also showed that Swem’s conduct violated a clearly established right [not to be sexually harassed], based on the particular facts of this case.” Swem could not immediately be reached for comment.

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Japanese Cell Biologist Wins Nobel in Medicine

Yoshinori Ohsumi (left), a Japanese cell biologist, was this morning named winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize in Medicine. He was honored for "his discoveries of mechanisms for autophagy." Ohsumi is a professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Early in his career, he taught at Rockefeller University.

Information on his research may be found here.

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Law: California CCs Must Negotiate With Adjuncts

In a win for part-time faculty members at California community colleges, Governor Jerry Brown on Friday signed into law legislation mandating that college districts negotiate with adjuncts over re-employment and termination rules, The Sacramento Bee reported. The legislation is a pared-down version of an earlier bill that would have guaranteed a workload for long-serving adjuncts. It nevertheless has significant support from part-time faculty members who seek consideration of seniority in reappointments and increased job security.

“There are over two million students in California community colleges, and part-time faculty play a critical role in their success,” Jose Medina, a Democratic assemblyman who proposed the legislation, said in a statement. “By improving employment practices for part-time faculty, this legislation will benefit both these dedicated educators and their students.”

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Seattle U Says It Will Challenge Adjunct Union Vote

Seattle University is challenging the recently announced results of an election in favor of a part-time faculty union. “The issue is a jurisdictional one,” Father Stephen V. Sundborg, president, said in a statement Friday. “It involves a higher principle: the constitutionally protected right of Seattle University, as a faith-based institution, to carry out our core Jesuit Catholic educational mission free from government intrusion by the [National Labor Relations Board]. It is a right that we believe is important to the university and our Jesuit Catholic character to uphold.”

The union election took place in 2014, but ballots were impounded as the university challenged the rights of its adjuncts to bargain collectively. It argued that its Roman Catholic affiliation put it outside the jurisdiction of the NLRB, but a major 2014 board decision in favor of an adjunct union bid at Pacific Lutheran University opened the door to adjunct unions at religious institutions. A local NLRB office eventually decided that Seattle’s adjuncts could count their ballots, and the tally -- 73 for and 63 against -- was announced earlier this month.

Sundborg said in his statement that Seattle is not opposed to unions, and many of its employees already are unionized. The problem is faculty unions in relation to the college’s religious mission, he said. “For example, would the university be required to hire faculty openly hostile to our Jesuit way of teaching and Catholic identity?” he asked. “Would the university be prohibited from removing a faculty member who seeks to undermine our core religious identity?”

The faculty union is affiliated with Service Employees International Union. “We see the administration is doubling down on their specious claim of religious exception, by trying to pass off economic issues as religious issues,” Ben Stork, adjunct professor of film studies at Seattle, said in a news release. “In reality this is about not wanting to pay for the basic labor that the university runs on.”

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Senate at Lincoln U of Missouri Criticizes Provost

The Faculty Senate at Lincoln University in Missouri voted 88 to 18 Thursday that it lacks confidence in Provost Said Sewell, ABC 17 News reported. The vote followed numerous questions raised by faculty leaders over the state of shared governance at the university. A particular concern has been a plan to shutter the history department, a move that faculty leaders said was made without sufficient consultation with professors and that is antithetical to the mission of the historically black institution. Lincoln declined to respond to Thursday's vote.

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Grad school professors should be held to higher teaching standards (essay)

High standards of accountability for teachers, which both the public and government called for, led to teaching standards for K-12 schools through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. As a result, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1990 and 2013 the dropout rate for white students decreased from 9 percent to 5 percent, for black students from 13 percent to 7 percent, and for Hispanic students, from 32 percent to 12 percent. Clearly, those standards appear to have made a difference.

But dropouts are not only a K-12 problem. Data from the Ph.D. Completion Project conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools show that graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields have a graduation rate of only 55 to 64 percent after 10 years. In fact, the graduation rate for humanities this past decade is not quite 50 percent. Given the significant number of dropouts, greater accountability seems a logical solution in the way it is has helped K-12 schools. Yet higher education has not turned to similar standards in order to increase retention and improve teaching.

Higher Education Critique

Most university retention efforts focus on problems of graduate students rather than quality control of professors’ teaching. For example, Ellucian, one of the largest education consulting groups in America, has said that “early academic achievement is a predictor of future success” for retention and student success in higher education. Nevertheless, improving teaching is never a part of the formula to improve academic performance. The only time professors are mentioned by Ellucian relates to advising rather than actual instruction.

Thus far a major criticism from the students who have left graduate school is the lack of support they received from their professors -- namely, the dearth of help with understanding class content. Students typically are left to tutors, classmates or other peers if they get lost in classes. Many students have wasted time and resources by not having relevant, helpful feedback. That lack of guidance leads many students to change advisers -- to those who seem to know what is going on. Even more just drop out.

Universities do claim to evaluate teacher quality, although not through standards such as those initiated by No Child Left Behind. Instead, most institutions use student evaluations, course syllabi, course examinations and peer reviews. But professional peers -- such as graduate students in psychology, science or history -- are seldom trained to recognize effectiveness in teaching skills. For that reason, only education professors’ teaching may be compared to a list of specific skills and classroom management techniques.

Implications for Graduate School Practices

Successful academic achievement in graduate school has been shown as a key factor for students’ low attrition rates. David Litalien and Frederic Guay, scholars at, respectively, the Australian Catholic University and Laval University in Quebec, have demonstrated that a student’s perceived competence is the strongest indicator of who completes their dissertation. Moreover, the other two significant factors -- quality of the student-adviser relationship and interactions with other faculty members -- indicate that more support and less isolation students have, the more likely they are to come to the final examination with a defensible paper. That means, of course, lower attrition and better graduation rates.

Having specific criteria for a graduate student’s preparation for the defense of their thesis is one way to increase perceived competence. Currently, students are told that the prospectus, exams and defense are a test of what they have learned. Yet that is often not the case. One student, for instance, was told by a professor on his dissertation committee that he needed to add feminist theory when his architectural design proposal was introduced. Because his vision was inclusive and not necessarily masculine or feminine, he failed his prospectus meeting. Another student had to retake the general exams due to her committee getting off topic about government in education, which had no relation to her research in morality. Many similar situations occur in academe when the objectives and goals of the program are not clearly conveyed.

In addition, professors believe that graduate students should be able to write for their academic discipline or field as they produce a thesis or dissertation. However, they often provide no criteria for the field as distinct from other fields. Instead of teaching that, many professors suggest books on academic writing or the writing-center tutors. They often just direct students to work with the “dissertation librarians” and figure it out. If professors taught students how to write a field thesis or dissertation, then students could understand the aims of research. As is, doctoral students are often left traveling without a map.

It need not be this way. Calls for reform in K-12 education resulted in a prescriptive approach which led to higher retention and graduation rates. In higher education, we suggest that five basic skills are necessary for effective teaching, as outlined by Raoul Arreola, professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center; Michael Theall, faculty emeritus at Youngstown State University; and Lawrence M. Aleamoni, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona:

  • content expertise
  • instructional design skills
  • instructional delivery skills
  • instructional assessment skills
  • course management skills

Such skills must be broken down into specific observable activities that can be measured in a way similar to how they are measured when K-12 teachers are evaluated. That would allow university leaders to assess graduate school professors and make sure the best pedagogy is in place.

Professors can also participate in professional development about educational and teaching approaches that they can consistently apply in both individual and class instruction. For example, as we look at higher education reform in particular, students need quality teaching about dissertation writing, along with more time with dissertation committees for constructive feedback about expectations.

We are hesitant to apply a one-size-fits-all type of instruction as part of doctoral studies. But many doctoral students face confusion every day with the current hands-off method from professors who seem unclear themselves. Indeed, in identifying causes for grad student attrition, we found a number of instances when students perceived that their questions were not answered and needs were not met during the process of writing their dissertation. Future researchers must learn how to complete accurate, relevant and original work in their research field. In order to contribute in diverse academic fields, students also need mentoring in scholarly writing. By demonstrating the skills that are needed for research success, professors could provide students with the knowledge and tools that would lead to a higher graduation rate.

So we ask again, how do professors need to be evaluated? We argue that professors are teachers, and because K-12 retention rose after strict standards were imposed on teachers, higher education’s retention rates could also rise with specific standards for professors that ensure that both they and their students attain success.

Dana Ford is an emeritus director of studies in English as a foreign language, and Melissa Brevetti is director of accreditation for the School of Education and Behavioral Sciences at Langston University.

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U.S. report examines constraints on university programs in China

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U.S. Government Accountability Office examines American universities’ policies and practices on academic and other freedoms for their educational programs in China.

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