Higher Education Quick Takes

Quick Takes

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Tuesday, September 1, 2015 - 3:00am

Nearly a year after announcing controversial changes to faculty and staff health care benefits, including the introduction of coinsurance and an out-of-pocket deductible, Harvard University backtracked somewhat. Provost Alan M. Garber said in an email to faculty and staff that a new plan without deductibles and coinsurance is now available to nonunionized professors and staff members. The new, alternative point-of-service plan will have a higher premium but no deductible or coinsurance for in-network care -- hopefully appealing to those seeking predictable insurance costs, Garber wrote.

Harvard also removed deductibles and coinsurance for diagnostics labs and X-rays, which some faculty members objected to last year as barriers to seeking preventive care. Addressing concerns that the health care changes would disproportionately affect those at the lower end of the employee pay scale, the university is also shifting salary tiers upward -- meaning that employees who make less than $75,000 will be part of the lowest tier, up from $70,000, and eligible for lower premiums.

“The announcement of changes to be introduced with Harvard’s 2015 health plans stimulated considerable discussion and concern within the university community,” Garber said. “We have heard the views of many members of our community in open forums, online, and in a number of other informal meetings with individuals and groups. We deeply value the thoughtful comments and suggestions that we received.” Still, Garber said that health insurance premium rates for everyone will increase year over year, due to the rising cost of care. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015 - 9:00am

More than 200 university presidents and chancellors on Monday urged the Obama administration to incorporate voluntary, institution-submitted data on student completion rates into its forthcoming consumer information tool. 

The university leaders said in a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan that federal graduation rates -- which currently capture only first-time, full-time students -- are far too incomplete and misrepresent how well colleges perform. More than half of bachelor’s degree recipients attend more than one institution before graduating, and therefore aren’t counted in the federal data.

The letter asks the administration to include more complete graduation rates using the Student Achievement Measure, which is run by a coalition of college groups and tracks a far greater swath of students, including transfer and part-time students. 

The Education Department is currently developing a new consumer information tool it plans to release in the coming weeks in lieu of the controversial college ratings system it had originally proposed. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015 - 3:00am

How do you avoid personalizing a website based on critiquing scientific research (or risking professional retaliation for it)? Remain anonymous. That’s what the creators of PubPeer have done for about three years, facilitating crowdsourced critiques of peer-reviewed research published elsewhere. But the creators came out this week in a post on their site. Previously known only as “a diverse team of early-stage scientists in collaboration with programmers who have collectively decided to remain anonymous,” the faces of PubPeer are as follows: Brandon Stell, an American researcher in the brain physiology lab at the University Paris Descartes, and George Smith and Richard Smith, two brothers who still have not revealed their professional affiliations. (Richard Smith once worked for Stell as a graduate student and George Smith is a web developer who helps maintain the site, Stell told Science.)

Boris Barbour, a Paris neuroscientist, and Gabor Brasnjo, a patent attorney based in San Francisco, also have gone public as members of the newly announced PubPeer Foundation to expand postpublication peer review, increase PubPeer’s transparency and otherwise improve the site. “The bylaws of the newly created foundation aim to establish it as a service run for the benefit of its readers and commenters, who create all of its content,” the creators said in a statement on the site Monday. “We feel that a nonprofit organization constitutes the ideal framework through which to pursue these goals.”

In an email interview, Stell said the creators came out to register the California-based foundation as a nonprofit, which “unfortunately is incompatible with our anonymity.” The site hasn’t been without controversy, and it’s involved in an ongoing lawsuit brought by a cancer researcher who says he lost a job opportunity due to anonymous PubPeer commenters. Stell said he and his partners were nevertheless “very proud at how efficient PubPeer has become at alerting scientists to issues with published papers.”

Tuesday, September 1, 2015 - 3:00am

It’s been called academe’s last acceptable prejudice: that against rural, Southern students. And a new study supports that claim, suggesting that college students from Appalachia who speak a dialect feel made fun of or that they’re frequently corrected. Lead author Stephany Dunstan, the assistant director of the Office of Assessment at North Carolina State University, interviewed 26 students from rural, Southern Appalachia who attended an unnamed large research institution in the urban South. She asked about their experiences in college and their dialects, and performed vocalic analysis of several features typical to the Appalachian dialect. Many participants said they felt they had to work harder to prove to others on campus that they are intelligent and capable, “despite” their dialects, Dunstan said via email. “For some students this means that they code-switch (or change their speech) frequently or in some cases, categorically.”

Dunstan said a major implication of the study for faculty is to be “mindful in their courses that students of all dialect/language backgrounds are treated respectfully and feel comfortable using their own voices (for example, not feeling they must code-switch to a ‘standard’ variety to be taken seriously or respected).” It’s similarly important that faculty members who speak diverse dialects feel comfortable using them in class, so students hear them, she added.

The paper, called “Dialect and Influences on the Academic Experiences of College Students,” was recently published in The Journal of Higher Education.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015 - 3:00am

In today's Academic Minute, Pietro Ceccato, a scientist at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society, discusses new technologies that monitor the environment. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

Monday, August 31, 2015 - 3:00am

Two top officials of Portland State University's foundation have resigned in the wake of an embarrassing incident in which the university invited many to the expected announcement of a $100 million gift, but called the event off when the gift failed to materialize, The Oregonian reported. The would-be donor turned out to be someone who might not have had the money in the first place, and questions have been raised about whether the donor was vetted.

Monday, August 31, 2015 - 3:00am

A video is circulating among South Carolina media organizations showing someone confronting the former president of North Greenville University in a private home with a female staff member, The Greenville News reported. James Epting, the former president, declined to comment. The video was apparently shot in October 2014, shortly before the university announced that Epting would be taking a sabbatical and then resigning.

Beverly Hawkins, chairwoman of the Christian college's board, released a statement that said: “North Greenville University’s leaders are expected to lead Christ-centered lives and abide by all campus policies and procedures. The administration and faculty on campus today reflect our legal, moral and ethical expectations. We take our responsibilities as leaders of a Christian institution seriously and hold each member of our community to the highest of standards."

Monday, August 31, 2015 - 3:00am

The College of Saint Rose is planning faculty layoffs and program cuts.

The Albany Times Union reports the 4,500-student Roman Catholic college has a $9.3 million structural deficit and had a $4 million operating deficit last year, and 70 percent of its property is mortgaged. Now lenders are demanding the college improve its financial situation. "Like many institutions across the country, enrollment at the College of Saint Rose has declined in the past due to market forces and demographic shifts nationally," a college spokeswoman, Lisa Haley Thomson, told the Times Union. "Therefore, the college is beginning the necessary process of prioritizing its academic offerings."

Monday, August 31, 2015 - 3:00am

Baylor University President Ken Starr late Friday announced that he has received an investigation he asked a law professor to perform on the university's handling of sexual assault accusations against a football player. The university asked the law professor to investigate after an article in Texas Monthly alleged that the university may have known that the player had previously been suspended from another team over violent behavior. Furthering the criticism, a jury found the player, Samuel Ukwuachu, guilty of the Baylor sexual assault Aug. 20, but the university -- with its lower burden of proof -- never took action against the player and was expected to add him to its football team’s defense this season.

Friday's announcement did not say what the investigation found, but said another investigation would soon start. "I am recommending that our Board of Regents retain the services of outside counsel to investigate thoroughly these matters and recommend continued improvements. The board plans to announce its selection of outside counsel early next week," a statement from Starr said.

Monday, August 31, 2015 - 3:00am

The University of Texas at Austin on Sunday removed a statue of Jefferson Davis, the Confederate president, from a prominent campus area. The statue's placement has been debated for years and the university originally planned the move for earlier this month, but held off when the Sons of Confederate Veterans tried to get an injunction to block the move. When that failed, the university went ahead. The statue will be relocated to a museum. Numerous people watched the scene and posted photos to social media, such as the image at right, of the cleaning of the pedestal where the statue of Davis used to stand.

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