Higher Education Quick Takes

Quick Takes

June 1, 2020

College presidents and officials responded this weekend to nationwide protests and unrest after a white Minneapolis police officer allegedly murdered George Floyd, a black man, using a choke hold while Floyd was facedown and handcuffed. Four officers at the event have been fired and one, who was recorded kneeling on Floyd's neck until and after he became unresponsive, has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.

P. Barry Butler, president of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said he condemned the killing of Floyd and implored the community to seek out opportunities for kindness.

"We are all worthy and precious, regardless of our backgrounds or ideological differences," he wrote to students and staff. "Violence is never the solution, but we also cannot stand idly by. In turbulent times, self-reflection and education can be keys to positive change. Please ask yourselves how you can leverage your particular connections, skills and knowledge to make a positive difference -- and how unconscious bias may affect your judgments."

Duke University president Vincent Price said in a statement that for many people, pain, trauma and hopelessness are now overwhelming.

"This ongoing history of structural and sustained racism is a fundamental and deeply distressing injustice, here as elsewhere," he wrote. "Duke University will continue the work of addressing generations of racism and injustice, of seeking ways to approach one another with respect, and of building communities that are truly safe, supportive, and inclusive for all."

The president of Cornell University, Martha Pollack, said she was heartbroken and sickened by the deaths of Floyd and other black Americans before him.

"I want to make clear, both personally and on behalf of Cornell, that we will do all we can as a university to address this scourge of racism," she wrote to students and staff. "We will address it directly in our educational programs, in our research and in our engagement and related activities, working through the ways we know best to push for a world that is equitable and kind; where people do not have to fear for their lives because of the color of their skin; and where everyone has the same opportunities to grow, thrive and enjoy their lives."

The administration of Seton Hall University released a statement calling Floyd's death "tragic."

"Issues with which our society has grappled for years, again in the spotlight, further strain a nation already under tremendous pressure from the coronavirus pandemic," the statement said. "As a Catholic community of faith committed to diversity and inclusion, we reaffirm our conviction that racism has no place -- anywhere. Our Church proclaims that human life is sacred and that the dignity of the human person is the foundation of a moral vision for society."

University of South Florida president Steven Currall said the deaths of Floyd and others should prompt the community to pause and think about how racism affects all daily life.

"As we work to help each other understand what has happened -- if we can ever truly understand -- I find myself reflecting on the Principles of Community we aspire to at USF," he wrote to college community, "to treat each other with respect and dignity, refrain from displays of inappropriate anger or intimidating conduct, shun epithets or abusive language, find effective means to disagree, and to persuade and to inform through dialogue."

President Joseph Castro of Fresno State University said what happened to Floyd was "tragic, inhumane and reprehensible."

"While we may at times feel despair at the frequency of such tragic events, and while we might struggle with how to successfully address racism, I am certain that we can begin by being compassionate, supportive and fully inclusive in our programs and in our actions," he wrote to the campus community Saturday. "Let’s commit to an intentional and unwavering effort to see one another as true partners, consistent with our Principles of Community -- kindness, respect, collaboration and accountability -- and our core values of diversity, distinction and discovery."

June 1, 2020

President Trump issued a proclamation Friday barring entry of Chinese graduate students and researchers affiliated with universities connected to the Chinese military.

The proclamation, which does not affect Chinese undergraduate students, bars entry for any Chinese national applying for F or J visas to study or conduct research in the U.S. “who either receives funding from or who currently is employed by, studies at, or conducts research at or on behalf of, or has been employed by, studied at, or conducted research at or on behalf of, an entity in the PRC [People’s Republic of China] that implements or supports the PRC's ‘military-civil fusion strategy.’” The proclamation defines this strategy as “actions by or at the behest of the PRC to acquire and divert foreign technologies, specifically critical and emerging technologies, to incorporate into and advance the PRC's military capabilities.”

Earlier reports indicated that current students with ties to Chinese military-affiliated institutions would have their visas canceled. The proclamation does not go that far, but it does direct the secretary of state to review whether their visas should be revoked.

The proclamation does not list which universities or entities would be considered to have problematic links to the Chinese military for purposes of visa issuance. Experts have raised concerns about how broadly this could potentially be interpreted and how it will be perceived by Chinese students more broadly. Reports last week in The New York Times and Reuters indicated the plan would affect between 3,000 and 5,000 current students, a small fraction of the approximately 370,000 Chinese students in the U.S.

June 1, 2020

Christopher House, a professor of communication studies at Ithaca College who also taught online courses at Liberty University, resigned from his job at Liberty last week in response to tweets from Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr.

In the tweets, Falwell said he would "reluctantly comply" with the order to wear face masks in the state of Virginia, where Liberty is located, if he could wear a mask with "Governor Blackface himself" on it. He included an image of a face mask depicting a photo from Virginia governor Ralph Northam's medical school yearbook, of one person in blackface next to another in a Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. Northam confirmed early last year that he was in the photo.

In a resignation letter he shared on Facebook, House referred specifically to the tweets as his reason for resigning.

"As an African-American man and Christian pastor, I am horrified and appalled that the president of the largest Christian university in the world would knowingly and intentionally use images that evoke a deep history of racial terror for people of color in the U.S., specifically individuals who look like me, for the purposes of making a political statement to the Governor of Virginia," he wrote.

"If this is the kind of 'training champions for Christ' that LU leadership engages in and supports -- at the painful expense of Black people and other marginal groups -- I morally cannot have anything more to do with this institution," he continued. "I have an obligation to God, myself and to those whom I serve and love to stand for what is right, just and true."

Local broadcast station WLSL 10 News reported that a request for comment from Liberty University was returned with a screenshot of Falwell's second tweet explaining the context of the image.

"Just a way to shine a spotlight on the fact that Democrats are and always have been the real racists in this country," it said.

June 1, 2020

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s controversial borrower-defense rule cleared one hurdle with President Trump’s veto Friday evening of a congressional resolution that would have undone it. But the rule, which would make it harder for borrowers to have their student debt forgiven if they were defrauded by their colleges, still faces a legal challenge before it is due to go into effect July 1.

Still ongoing is a suit challenging the law in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, brought in February by the Project on Predatory Student Lending and Public Citizen Litigation Group on behalf of the New York Legal Assistance Group. "The rule is terrible. It is bad policy and it is legally indefensible, and students are going to defeat it in court," Eileen Connor, the Project on Predatory Lending's legal director, said in a statement Sunday.

As for the political obstacle, advocates acknowledged an override is not expected, even though 10 Republican senators and six members of the House joined Democrats in passing the resolution opposing the rule.

The veto had been expected. In February the White House issued a statement opposing the resolution and saying that, if passed, Trump’s advisers would recommend a veto of the rule, which, beginning July 1, creates a higher bar for having loans forgiven than regulations created under the Obama administration.

But in recent days, the hopes of the rule’s critics had increased that Trump might let the resolution go into effect by taking no action before a deadline Saturday.

“Whereas the last administration promoted a regulatory environment that produced precipitous school closures and stranded students, this new rule puts the needs of students first, extends the window during which they can qualify for loan discharge, and encourages schools to provide students with opportunities to complete their educations and continue their pursuit of economic success,” the Trump administration said in its veto message.

The Education Department also praised the veto. “This administration is committed to protecting all student from fraud and holding all schools accountable when they fail their students. This administration’s rule does just that, despite false claims from many corners. The Secretary is thankful to the president for his leadership on this issue,” the department said in a statement.

However, the veto drew wide criticism, including from the American Council on Education, Democrats and veterans' groups, who have been pushing for the rule’s repeal because many of those targeted by for-profit colleges are veterans.

“President Trump’s veto of my bipartisan bill to help our veterans was a victory for Education Secretary DeVos and the fraud merchants at the for-profit colleges,” Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin said in a statement. “My question to the President: in four days did you forget those flag waving Memorial Day speeches as you vetoed a bill the veterans were begging for?” said Durbin, who sponsored the resolution in the Senate.

ACE said on Twitter Saturday, “We are deeply disappointed by this veto. This important and needed measure would have offered protections from shady schools and unscrupulous operators that all students deserve.”

June 1, 2020

Workplace wellness plans don’t make much of a difference in wellness, as measured by clinical outcomes, according to a two-year study of 4,800 employees at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Employees who opted in to this wellness plan showed no significant differences in biometrics, medical diagnoses or medical use relative to a control group. The intervention did increase self-reports of having a primary care physician and improved certain health beliefs, however.

In academe, no wellness plan has been more controversial than the one Pennsylvania State University announced in 2013, which initially involved charging employees $100 a month for not submitting to health screenings and filling out a detailed health questionnaire. Penn State backed down from those requirements shortly after debuting them. The new study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

June 1, 2020

Eighty-four higher education organizations signed and sent a letter Friday to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer reiterating a request for an additional $46.6 billion for institutions and their students to help recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

A first letter, signed by 40 organizations, that detailed the request was sent April 9. Institutions were given roughly $14 billion from Congress by the CARES Act, passed in March, with roughly $6 billion required to be given directly to students in need.

"Recent surveys conducted by several higher education associations indicate that the $46.6 billion estimate is far lower than the actual impact will be," this week's letter said. "For example, in one such survey three-quarters of institutions reported total current-year revenue losses of up to 20 percent, while a smaller percentage, roughly 5 percent, reported even higher losses."

Authors of the letter reiterated their belief that direct distribution to institutions would be most effective.

"We firmly believe that direct distribution to institutions is the best way to ensure that federal funds actually reach the students and schools they were intended to help," the letter said. "Federal support for higher education has historically been used by states to supplement other areas of state budgets, leaving higher education vulnerable to massive cuts in state support and students vulnerable to tuition increases."

Groups that signed the letter include the American Council on Education, the American Association of University Professors, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, Common App, Educause, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Several accreditation bodies and state organizations were also among the signatories.

June 1, 2020

Today on the Academic Minute, part of Scripps College Week, Jennifer Groscup, associate professor of psychology, explores the government's right to search you. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

May 29, 2020

The nation’s governors should create a public health framework for colleges and universities to follow in order to reopen campuses, their national association said.

In a memo Wednesday, the National Governors Association recommended a number of steps including following the lead of Democratic Connecticut governor Ned Lamont’s reopening advisory group, which laid out a framework recommending steps for colleges to take, including doing testing and contact tracing.

“Reopening higher education institutions will be a critically important and high-profile step for governors who are working to get their state economies back on track. This process will involve complex legal questions for which governors should provide clear guidance,” the association’s memo said.

May 29, 2020

The University of Minnesota announced Wednesday it will scale back its relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department after George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man living in St. Louis Park, Minn., was killed by police on Monday.

The university specified that it would no longer contract with the MPD for additional support at events, including football games, concerts and ceremonies, and will not use the department for specialized services such as K-9 explosive detection units. The relationship between the university and city police will be limited to “joint patrols and investigations,” according to a letter from Joan Gabel, the university's president.

“As a community, we are outraged and grief-stricken. I do not have the words to fully express my pain and anger and I know that many in our community share those feelings, but also fear for their own safety,” Gabel wrote. “This will not stand.”

May 29, 2020

Weighing in for the first time on the push by colleges to be protected from coronavirus-related lawsuits should they reopen, Senator Patty Murray said she opposes granting a “liability shield” because it would essentially say, “it’s okay if students or employees get sick.”

The comments by the top Democrat on the Senate education committee in a statement to Inside Higher Ed contrast with those of the committee’s Republican chairman, Senator Lamar Alexander, who backs liability protection. They also come as associations representing colleges and universities earlier in the day called for Congress to provide the protection.

Nearly 80 education groups, including associations representing colleges and universities, wrote Congress asking for “temporary” protections from COVID-19-related lawsuits should they reopen campuses.

As first reported by Inside Higher Ed, colleges pushed for protection from pandemic-related lawsuits in a meeting with Vice President Mike Pence and before the Senate Judiciary Committee two weeks ago. The effort is part of a broader push by groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and supported by Republican congressional leaders, to block lawsuits should students, customers or workers contract the coronavirus.

In the letter to congressional leaders, the president of the American Council on Education, Ted Mitchell, wrote that “as colleges and universities assess how quickly and completely campuses can resume full operations, they are facing enormous uncertainty about COVID-19-related standards of care and corresponding fears of huge transactional costs associated with defending against COVID-19 spread lawsuits, even when they have done everything within their power to keep students, employees, and visitors safe.”

A shield is needed, Mitchell wrote, “to blunt the chilling effect this will have on otherwise reasonable decision-making leading to our nation’s campuses resuming operations in a safe and sensible manner.”

He wrote the protections should be given for colleges “following applicable public health standards, and they should preserve recourse for those harmed by truly bad actors who engage in egregious misconduct.”

Republican leaders in the Senate, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the majority whip, John Cornyn, are working on a proposal to provide the protection for a range of entities. McConnell has said liability protection has to be part of any future coronavirus relief package. It’s unclear when Senate Republicans might release their liability protection proposal, but McConnell said Tuesday he expects Congress to take up another coronavirus package in about a month.

But Murray said there are other priorities. “Students and parents across the country are depending on colleges and universities to prioritize students’ health and safety. Many colleges are working hard to do the right thing -- but they need clear, enforceable standards and guidance from the federal government,” Murray said in the statement.

“Instead of just saying it’s okay if students or employees get sick, which is what a liability shield would do, we need to prioritize ensuring that -- when the time comes -- colleges can reopen safely and in accordance with the advice of public health experts. And as our coronavirus response continues, I’ll continue to ensure that colleges and universities have the resources they need to serve their students,” she said.

The issue is expected to be debated next Thursday, when the presidents of Purdue and Brown Universities and Lane College are scheduled to testify before the U.S. Senate's health and education committee on safely reopening campuses this fall.

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