Higher Education Quick Takes

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Thursday, August 18, 2016 - 3:00am

The National Consumer Law Center sent a letter to Education Secretary John King today asking the Department of Education to track the relationship between student loan debt and racial inequality. The letter follows efforts by the group to obtain the release of data on how federal debt collection practices are affecting minority student borrowers in particular.

It was signed by 39 other legal aid, civil rights and public advocacy groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Institute for College Access and Success, and the Center for Responsible Lending.

“It is unacceptable that, for nearly a decade, the department has known that student loan debt disproportionately harms borrowers of color, and despite this knowledge, has failed to even track this problem, let alone address the issue,” said Persis Yu, director of National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project.

Under King, the department has taken steps to add more consumer protections for student loan borrowers, including the creation of a Student Aid Enforcement unit. But the groups who signed on to the letter say having data on race and student debt is needed to be sure that new protections are benefiting all borrowers.

The NCLC earlier this year filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit along with the ACLU and the Massachusetts ACLU seeking data on racial impacts of firms collecting federal student debt. The department said in response to a FOIA request that it was not keeping data responsive to the issue.

Thursday, August 18, 2016 - 4:23am

Birmingham-Southern College announced Wednesday that it is dropping the requirement that all undergraduate applicants submit ACT or SAT scores. “This move will in no way compromise the caliber of our incoming class or reduce BSC’s admission standards,” said a statement from Sara Newhouse, vice president for admission and financial planning. “Rather, we hope it gives bright, engaged students who fear BSC is out of their reach another way to apply.”

Thursday, August 18, 2016 - 3:00am

Ann O'Leary, Hillary Clinton's most visible adviser on education issues, will join Clinton's White House transition team should the former secretary of state win the White House in November.

O'Leary's inclusion on the potential transition team was reported first by The New York Times.

The Democratic primary campaign was preoccupied with debates over higher ed policy, specifically on free tuition and issues of college affordability. But O'Leary's background is mostly in K-12 and early education policy.

A Fortune profile in 2015 described her as one of Clinton's trio of economic advisers along with Jake Sullivan (national security) and Maya Harris (other domestic issues). As a Clinton Senate aid in 2001, she was involved in the development of the No Child Left Behind Act, among other legislation.

Thursday, August 18, 2016 - 3:00am

A new survey of part-time faculty members in Ontario offers additional evidence that most adjunct instructors are no longer professionals who teach on the side. The typical instructor surveyed was female (60 percent), with 66 percent reporting having finished a Ph.D. That’s a big shift from a similar, previous survey conducted in the early 1990s, which found that most part-time faculty were male professionals who taught a course or two for fun, fulfillment or service. The involuntary part-timers in the new survey reported working four to five years on short-term contracts and wanting to find full-time academic work with benefits.

The report also notes that among these “precarious sessionals” are those who have “given up” on academe and are seeking any full-time position and those who have taken up work in other fields but who are “in waiting” for a full-time academic position. “A Survey of Sessional Faculty in Ontario Publicly Funded Universities” was written by Cynthia Field, a Ph.D. candidate in education at the University of Toronto, and Glen A. Jones, the Ontario Research Chair in Postsecondary Education Policy and Measurement and a professor of higher education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at Toronto.

Twelve Ontario colleges and universities participated in the survey, with response rates among temporary faculty members varying by institution, from 16 percent to 48 percent. The overall response rate among 7,814 instructors surveyed was 21.5 percent. In addition to demographic data, the survey sought open-ended answers to questions about how learning environments can be improved as part-time-faculty numbers continue to increase.

Respondents said that hiring faculty to more stable positions would reduce stress and enable instructors to better prepare for upcoming courses, according to the report. Many said that undergraduate class sizes were too big for providing opportunities for critical thinking and student engagement, and others said they worried classrooms were poorly laid out for learning. Some wanted private meeting spaces. Others reported wanting more opportunities for professional engagement, as well as more pedagogy and classroom training in their own graduate programs as preparation for teaching. Another concern was a perceived increased need to spend classroom time on remedial work in first-year courses, such as on essay structure.

Thursday, August 18, 2016 - 3:00am

Today on the Academic Minute, Simon Darroch, assistant professor in the department of earth and environmental sciences at Vanderbilt University, explores whether the spread of modern animals led to the demise of the previous era’s inhabitants. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016 - 3:00am

Nicholas Dirks announced Tuesday that he is stepping down as chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, after only three years in the position. A statement from the university quoted him as saying, “I have come to the personal decision that the time is right for me to step aside and allow someone else to take up the financial and institutional challenges ahead of us.”

The Los Angeles Times noted that his resignation comes amid increased faculty frustrations with his leadership. In addition, Dirks is facing an inquiry into alleged misuse of public funds through personal use of a fitness trainer without payment. Dirks has faced numerous criticisms of the university's handling of sexual harassment allegations -- and he had vowed to improve the way Berkeley responds.

Dirks also started a process to seek out a new financial model for the university in an era of constrained state support.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016 - 3:00am

Wayne State University is trying to shed medical faculty members it views as “underproductive or unproductive,” The Detroit News reported. In a letter to faculty members that followed an earlier announcement about faculty productivity, Jack Sobel, dean of the School of Medicine, said 37 faculty appointments may be terminated or lost to retirement. Some 18 professors already have agreed to retire, accept phased retirement or received notice of nonrenewal of their contracts, Sobel wrote, while eight additional professors have agreed to separate from the institution. Another 11 faculty members will be recommended for dismissal. Sobel assured due process for tenured faculty members. 

Charles Parrish, president of Wayne State’s faculty union affiliated with the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers, said all of those affected are researchers in the basic sciences and clinical departments. He said decreased grant funding by the National Institutes of Health has affected some faculty members’ ability to do their work. “This will have an impact on what the medical school is able to do in terms of moving forward in research and teaching,” Parrish told The Detroit News.

A university spokesperson declined comment. Wayne State’s medical school reportedly said last year that it was dealing with a serious budget gap that would take three years to close. Sobel said in his letter that the cuts are a “critical and necessary step toward allowing our many productive faculty members to thrive, and will result in our emerging stronger as one of the nation’s most robust urban medical colleges and centers of research.”

Wednesday, August 17, 2016 - 3:00am

A higher education advocacy group is looking to bring attention to student debt relief companies marketing to borrowers services they could be getting free from the federal government.

Student Debt Crisis, a group that advocates on student loan issues through petitions and outreach efforts, says debt relief companies, while legal, often aggressively market services to borrowers that the federal government offers for free -- including help with loan forgiveness, consolidation and refinancing.

The Department of Education has warned borrowers to be wary of companies charging for help with student loans. And the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has taken enforcement action, including barring student debt relief companies that it said misrepresented services and tricked customers into paying large up-front fees from working in the industry.

Student Debt Crisis has released the results of a survey conducted last month with NerdWallet of 6,363 student borrowers from the group’s 800,000-person email list. Among the findings in the survey, the report says that respondents with the highest amounts of student debt were better informed about options for managing their debt than those with smaller amounts of debt.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016 - 4:27am

A student at the University of Southern Maine, Nimco M. Mohamed, has attracted considerable attention on Facebook with posts describing an interaction at the university library. She wrote of being called racial slurs and insults suggesting that she "return to my country," which she said were directed at her as a black Muslim woman. In particular, however, she faulted the response of the university when she called the campus police. She described being asked if she had done anything to "provoke" the man -- a question she characterized as "victim blaming." Many on Facebook have praised her, although she notes she has also received racist emails since speaking out.

The university responded with its own statement on Facebook, saying the university deeply regrets the harassment Mohamed experienced. But the statement also defended the university's response. "Please know in this particular incident, USM acted in a manner singly focused on protecting the safety and security of our student," the statement said.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016 - 3:00am

Today on the Academic Minute, Kim Burchiel, professor in the department of neurological surgery at Oregon Health & Science University, discusses how deep brain stimulation can help treat this debilitating disease. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

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