Higher Education Quick Takes

Quick Takes

January 20, 2017

Life will soon be a little easier for oral historians and a number of other kinds of scholars who have had to gain approval from institutional review boards. Revised federal guidance for such boards, to take effect in 2018, says the following activities are “deemed not to be research: (1) Scholarly and journalistic activities (e.g., oral history, journalism, biography, literary criticism, legal research and historical scholarship), including the collection and use of information that focus directly on the specific individuals about whom the information is collected.”

Historians, journalism students and scholars, and others have previously argued that they should be exempt from oversight by a board that aims to protect human research subjects. The American Historical Association, for example, issued a statement in support of the now-published revisions in 2015, saying it appreciates the government’s “consideration of self-regulation by historians. Individuals in any discipline who plan to do oral history interviews should follow the practices and ethical codes developed by the Oral History Association. These principles and codes aim to protect the interests of narrators (e.g., by requiring informed consent) while encouraging the creation of invaluable historical records.”

January 20, 2017

A new Brookings Institution paper by Judith Scott-Clayton questions whether free tuition is the most effective use of additional funds for higher education.

The paper comes on the heels of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo's plan to make public college tuition-free for most students in the state. The Excelsior Scholarship would ensure free tuition at New York's public two- and four-year institutions to families that make up to $125,000 a year. The program would cost the state about $163 million annually once it's fully implemented.

Scott-Clayton uses a recent study from researchers at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley, who examined a national database of state funding levels, tuition policies, institutional expenditures and student outcomes over time to answer whether reducing the price of tuition had more of an impact on enrollment and completion than increasing institutional expenditures.

"Tellingly, the authors find large effects when state funds are used to increase institutional expenditures but virtually no effect when they are used for across-the-board reductions in sticker price," Scott-Clayton stated.

The Berkley researchers found that a 10 percent increase in institutional spending per student leads to a 3 percent increase in enrollment and larger percentage increases in degree completion up to three years later. However, sticker prices have no measurable effect on enrollment or attainment.

In the Brookings paper, Scott-Clayton states that the "free" message may have an impact beyond the dollar amount, but in order to move forward with the debate, there have to be reasonable cost estimates and lower income caps should be considered, as well as increased support for institutions.

January 20, 2017

Who says play is just for kids? Not the University of Cambridge, which through today is accepting applications for a Lego professorship of play. The Lego Foundation is giving 2.5 million pounds ($3.1 million) to fund the position, in addition to a separate £1.5 million ($1.85 million) donation for a play research center in the university's education school, BBC News reported. The university says it aims to produce play-oriented research so that "children are equipped with 21st-century skills like problem solving, teamwork and self-control.” Tiny plastic blocks not your thing? Cambridge has previously advertised for a doctor of chocolate.

January 20, 2017

Today on the Academic Minute: Nicholas Leadbeater, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Connecticut, asks if laughing gas is a bad thing. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

January 19, 2017

A much talked-about article in The New York Times Wednesday didn't have alumni of Davidson College bursting with pride. Many alumni and others noted the Davidson reference in the profile of Cameron Harris, a recent graduate who mastered the art of creating fake news and making money in the process. As the article notes, his fake news also appears to have had an impact that worked in the favor of Donald Trump in the presidential election.

With so many people asking questions, Davidson released a statement: "Davidson works hard to create a culture of trust in which honesty and personal integrity are foundational. We hope that these values are instilled for life and we are disappointed when any alumnus falls short."

In the Times article, Harris is quoted as saying that he needed money because of the student loans he took out to attend Davidson. Of the money he earned producing fake news, he said, "I spent the money on student loans, car payments and rent."

Of course some in higher education may remember that Davidson is among the small group of private colleges that meet full financial need of all admitted applicants without including loans in aid packages.

Asked about his student loans, Harris said via email that Davidson didn't award him enough aid to cover his costs and that he ended up borrowing $60,000. He said the college is "disingenuous" in talking about how students don't need to borrow.

Davidson declined to comment about that. At Davidson and other colleges that don't put loans in aid packages, some students still borrow. But federal data from the College Scorecard show that borrowing is modest at Davidson. Only 20 percent of students borrow, and for undergraduate borrowers who graduate, average debt is just over $16,000.

January 19, 2017

The University of Wisconsin System filed a lawsuit Wednesday against its Oshkosh campus’s former chancellor and chief business officer, charging that they oversaw illegal financial transfers and university guarantees supporting five foundation-backed real estate projects.

The suit alleges that former UW Oshkosh Chancellor Richard Wells and former campus Chief Business Officer Thomas Sonnleitner improperly transferred a total of $11.3 million from UW Oshkosh to the UW Oshkosh Foundation, largely for the real estate projects. They also executed what the university system called illegal guarantees pledging UW Oshkosh support for bank loans made to the foundation -- assuring banks that the campus would make debt payments for the foundation in the event the foundation could not meet its financial obligations. But the Wisconsin state constitution and university system policies don’t allow public entities to support a private organization like the foundation.

Foundation projects supported by the transfers and guarantees were an alumni welcome and conference center, two biodigesters, a sports complex, and hotel renovations in downtown Oshkosh. Some of the money has been repaid, but roughly $4.5 million is still outstanding, according to the Wisconsin State Journal.

Wells (at left) served as UW Oshkosh chancellor from 2000 to 2014, at which point he retired. He supervised Sonnleitner, who was at the university from 2000 to 2016. Sonnleitner stepped down as chief budget officer and vice chancellor in March, then retired at the end of May after being placed on administrative leave.

The university system is seeking reimbursement for investigation costs, plus damages. The suit comes after UW Oshkosh Foundation President Art Rathjen in April informed UW Oshkosh’s current chancellor, Andrew Leavitt, that the foundation might need assistance with debt payments on the alumni welcome center. That prompted a series of investigations.

Leavitt fired Rathjen Tuesday. He also placed an unnamed foundation accountant on administrative leave.

In a statement Wednesday, Leavitt said Wells and Sonnleitner “broke a sacred trust” and described their actions as “isolated behavior.” The University of Wisconsin System said it and its Oshkosh campus cannot be held responsible for the foundation’s expenses or debt service, because the campus could not legally guarantee foundation bank loans.

January 19, 2017

Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, was named Wednesday by the National Endowment for the Humanities to give the 2017 Jefferson Lecture. Giving that lecture is among the top honors the government offers in the humanities. Nussbaum's talk, scheduled for May 1, will be called “Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame.” A statement from Nussbaum said of her topic, “It is urgent for us to understand ourselves better, to see why we have arrived at this state of division, hostility and noncommunication …. A philosophical approach, focused on a close look at human emotions, offers that understanding of ourselves …. I believe it also offers us strategies of hope and connection.”

January 19, 2017

The American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers have published an FAQ-style guide addressing common concerns among professors in the wake of the 2016 election. The document offers advice on scenarios ranging from an administrative ban on talking about the election in the classroom to discussing the election without appearing partisan and responding to students who express racist, sexist, xenophobic or homophobic views. It includes information on what is protected classroom speech and conduct and what is not.

The guide gives attention to non-tenure-track faculty members, saying that they “may be especially vulnerable in a highly politicized environment. All faculty must commit to ensuring that nontenured colleagues are supported and protected through enforcement of collective bargaining agreements, faculty handbooks and other actions from political and popular pressures that lead to arbitrary dismissals or nonrenewal of contracts.”

January 19, 2017

Macmillan Learning this week announced the acquisition of Intellus Learning. Macmillan is the publisher of a range of education materials. Intellus is a company that helps colleges identify all the educational materials to which they have access and provides data on student use of various materials.

January 19, 2017

The University of Central Florida says Kenneth Vehec will no longer be hired as an adjunct instructor in psychology because the university found he gave some students perfect grades on their final papers in return for donating $100 to a charity, The Orlando Sentinel reported. The alleged arrangement was reported to an ethics hotline. Vehec said he would never sell grades and that the incident is a misunderstanding coming out of his encouragement of students to get involved in extracurricular activities.

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