Higher Education Quick Takes

Quick Takes

March 27, 2009

Russel Ogden will be able to resume his research on assisted suicide, according to a settlement announced by the Canadian Association of University Teachers. Ogden, a sociologist at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, has written about assisted suicides and observed many of them. An ethics review board at his university had approved the research, but Kwantlen ordered him to stop any studies that involved observing suicides. While suicide is not illegal in Canada, assisting a suicide is illegal, and the university has equated Ogden's proposal to observe assisted suicides with assisting suicides himself. Many professors in Canada backed him, arguing that observing something is not the same as endorsing or participating in it -- and noting that many sociology studies involve observing illegal activities. The Canadian Association of University Teachers set up a committee to study the matter last year. The association's announcement of a settlement in the case said that Ogden is now permitted to engage in the research approved by the university's ethics review board.

March 27, 2009

Carol Vallone, who was CEO of WebCT before it was acquired by Blackboard, has become acting CEO of Wimba, a company that focuses on software that promotes group learning in higher education (and elementary and secondary education). Vallone, who has been on the Wimba board, said that no decision had been made on whether she might become CEO permanently. While Vallone declined to discuss specific goals for the company, she said she believed its services could be particularly helpful as colleges attract a more diverse range of students. And while Wimba has significant sales outside of the United States, in Australia and Britain, she said she believed there was "a lot of room around the globe" for international growth.

March 27, 2009

The most important fact about the preliminary data the U.S. Education Department released Thursday about student loan default rates is that the rate at which borrowers whose loans went into repayment in 2007 defaulted rose sharply, to 6.9 percent from 2006's 5.2 percent. That would seem to be a clear sign that the economic downturn is increasingly taking its toll, a worrisome trend from a public policy standpoint. However, in the highly politicized environment of our nation's capital, the department's release of the numbers drew attention for other reasons, most notably because the agency -- for the first time ever -- broke the data down to highlight the differences between how borrowers fared in the government's two competing loan programs, showing that borrowers were likelier to default in the lender-based guaranteed loan program, 7.3 percent to 5.3 percent. (A department official told The Wall Street Journal that it had done so in response to a records request by the newspaper.) Supporters of the guaranteed loan program questioned the validity of the data, noting that it appeared to significantly underreport the number of loans processed in the lender-based program and failed to note that borrowers in the direct loan program can go as much as two months longer before being declared in default. The reason for their suspicion, of course, is that President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have proposed eliminating the guaranteed loan program as soon as next year.

March 27, 2009

Opponents of teaching evolution failed Thursday to require Texas schools to teach the "weaknesses" of evolutionary theory, but they succeeded in votes requiring specific parts of evolutionary theory to be questioned in classrooms, The Dallas Morning News reported. The board is holding a series of votes this week on science requirements, and the evolution votes are considered crucial by scientists nationally because of the Texas-sized impact the state's education board has on the way textbooks are written. The board split evenly, 7 to 7, and thus failed to require schools to teach the "strengths and weaknesses" of all scientific theories -- a requirement widely viewed as a tool for forcing schools to imply that evolution isn't the scientific fact that it is. But while defenders of evolution won the big vote, they then lost several votes on subparts of evolutionary theory. The board agreed to require that students be taught about the "sufficiency or insufficiency" of common ancestry and natural selection. With more votes today, science groups hope to reverse some of those decisions. The blog of the Texas Freedom Network, a group that fights social conservatives in Texas, characterized Thursday's actions this way: "This morning the board slammed the door on bringing creationism into classrooms through phony 'weaknesses' arguments. But then board members turned around and threw open all the windows to pseudoscientific nonsense attacking core concepts like common descent and natural selection."

March 26, 2009

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is today naming 50 top early career scientists to receive special six-year appointments -- in a program on which the institute will spend $200 million -- to focus on bold, high-risk ideas without having to worry about applying for research support. The program is a response to widespread concerns that young scientists need to be so focused on grant applications that they opt for "safe" projects over those that could transform areas of study. Details on the award winners may be found here.

March 26, 2009

Even amid the cuts and tight budgets of this economically devastating year for higher education, the University of California is hiring senior officials at top salaries and awarding large raises to others, The San Francisco Chronicle reported. According to the newspaper, the university has in the last two months awarded raises of as much as 22.3 percent to a half dozen senior officials. University officials defended the increases, saying that many senior positions must be filled, and that certain circumstances warrant raises or high salaries.

March 26, 2009

A new book, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University, details the experience of Kevin Roose at Liberty University. Roose was an unlikely Liberty student because he was there on leave from Brown University to explore an institution with different values. As detailed in The Daily Beast, Liberty -- known under its founder, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, for taking on critics -- is taking a mellow response to the book. University officials have no plans to promote the book, nor to ban it.

March 26, 2009

Colorado College has announced plans to cut three teams from its athletics program: football, softball and water polo. In an open letter announcing the changes, college officials cited the need to cut spending. While many colleges are pushing to control athletic (and other) spending, Colorado has a particularly difficult time, the letter noted, because it is the only Division III program in the Mountain Time Zone, forcing particularly high spending on travel. The teams were selected for elimination on the basis of "competitive success, conference affiliation, available facilities, fund-raising success (or endowment earnings), roster size, and recruiting success," the letter said. It added that college officials also wanted to be sure the athletics program met federal gender equity requirements.

March 26, 2009

For the first time in its history, San Jose State University is rejecting qualified applicants. The San Jose Mercury News reported that while all eligible students from Santa Clara County were admitted, 4,400 from elsewhere in the state were told that they would have to enroll at other California State University campuses. University officials have been warning that they would be unable to meet the increased demand for slots, given the state's budget cuts.

March 26, 2009

Tufts University withdrew an invitation to an aide to Sen. Charles Grassley to speak at a campus forum, saying that university administrators couldn't appear at the forum along with the aide, The Boston Globe reported. The reason cited was that Senator Grassley (and the aide) are investigating possible conflicts of interest in federally supported research, including that of at least one professor at Tufts. At least one organizer of the Tufts event says that the situation raises academic freedom issues, although Tufts officials have stressed that anyone may speak at the university, and that the issue is simply whether administrators will appear at the same event. The aide in question is Paul D. Thacker, a former reporter who previously worked at Inside Higher Ed. Grassley's press secretary told the Globe: "These issues merit more discussion and less circling the wagons. It's too bad a reform perspective has been removed from the program."

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