Higher Education Quick Takes

Quick Takes

October 16, 2017

Sonoma State University President Judy Sakaki and her husband, Patrick McCallum, lost their home last week in the wildfires ravaging Northern California. The house, however, was the least of their worries as they were running for help at 4 a.m., with nothing in sight but more fires.

They recounted their experience in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle.

“I was thinking, ‘We’re going to make it through this thing. We are not going to let this fire kill us,’” McCallum said. “But as you start breathing smoke, start getting dizzy, you start questioning whether you’re going to make it.”

It was Sakaki who woke up to the fire alarms going off in the home, prompting her and her husband's evacuation.

The couple originally thought the fire was limited to their own house, but once they fled -- barefoot -- they looked into a scene of “pure chaos.”

“For miles in every direction, everything was burning -- and there was no one else in sight,” the Chronicle wrote, going on to describe the confusion and disorientation that followed for Sakaki and McCallum as they fled through flame-filled streets.

A Santa Rosa firefighter rescued them.

October 16, 2017

A number of colleges in the mainland United States are offering assistance to students in Puerto Rico, many of whom have had their homes and campuses devastated by hurricanes. Tulane University is offering a tuition-free semester, provided students pay their regular tuition to their home institution in Puerto Rico (mirroring the way many colleges assisted New Orleans institutions after Hurricane Katrina). Miami Dade College is among a number of public institutions in Florida offering in-state tuition rates to those from Puerto Rico. The University of Florida is offering free online courses.

October 16, 2017

Kevin Folta, chair of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, is suing The New York Times and one of its reporters for libel in relation to a 2015 article about the professor’s ties to Monsanto, according to The Gainesville Sun. The Times unfairly described Folta, a longtime advocate of genetically modified foods, as a paid operative for Monsanto, resulting in death threats, according to the lawsuit.

Folta, who believes in the ability of genetically modified organisms to help meet global food demands, has said he accepted funds from Monsanto to hold science communication seminars but that the funds had no bearing on his scientific conclusions; he’s also said he probably should not have so readily claimed he never accepted money from “Big Ag.”

“The damage [from the article] is so catastrophic that it serves to silence the other honest scientists for fear of the same fate,” reads the lawsuit. Folta is seeking more than $75,000 in damages. Lawyers for both parties declined to comment, as did Folta.

October 16, 2017

Today on the Academic Minute, Omer Gokcumen, assistant professor of biology at the University at Buffalo, details some new findings and how they alter our knowledge of the past. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.


October 13, 2017

Two years into its $50 million faculty diversity initiative, Yale University says it has hired 50 new ladder-rank professors. Some 26 have been hired within the last year, Yale said this week. Yale also has hired 11 Presidential Visiting Fellows this year. Such fellows, recruited from around the world, bring unique perspectives on research, practice and teaching, according to information from Yale.

Some diversity funds have supported a Dean’s Emerging Scholars program within the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Fifteen incoming Ph.D. students were admitted as fellows based on their outstanding potential and contributions to diversity this year, and 20 additional Ph.D. students will receive competitive research awards.

“Combined with support for nominations from divinity and music during our inaugural year, the initiative has now provided support to every school campuswide,” Provost Benjamin Polak and Richard Bribiescas, deputy provost for faculty development and diversity, said in an email this week to faculty members and administrators. “We now look ahead to the third year of the faculty excellence and diversity initiative, energized by our successes to date.”

October 13, 2017

Fencing on the RPI campus.Students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have been pushing, without success, for more control over their student union. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote to RPI this week to complain that the institute had denied students the right to hold any protests this weekend, when alumni and donors will be on campus. The decision runs counter to any commitment to freedom of expression, the FIRE letter said. Further, FIRE has noted the installation of a fence around various buildings to prevent student protests from being close to those visiting the campus, and to President Shirley Ann Jackson.

An RPI spokesman said via email that the university was committed to free expression. As for a protest this weekend, when alumni and other guests will be on campus, the spokesman said that "those with expertise in event management and security determined that a demonstration would pose significant disruption of already-planned events and raises concerns for the safety of attendees; therefore, after careful review, that specific request was denied." RPI remains willing to work with students on a range of issues, including finding suitable times for protests, the spokesman added.

October 13, 2017

Update: After the item below was published, organizers informed Inside Higher Ed that Jair Bolsonaro decided not to appear.

An open letter reported on by the George Washington University student newspaper, The GW Hatchet, calls on the university to rescind an invitation to Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing Brazilian politician who has praised the country’s former military dictatorship and who is viewed by opponents as holding positions that are misogynistic -- he once told a female legislator she was not worthy of being raped by him -- as well as racist and homophobic.

GW's Brazil Initiative is hosting the event, billed as “a conversation” with Bolsonaro, a deputy in Brazil’s National Congress and likely candidate for the 2018 Brazilian presidential election. An online flier for the event, which is scheduled for this afternoon, describes it as part of a “Brazilian Political Leaders Speaker Series.”

The open letter, which has about 900 signatures, many of which include university affiliations, opposes GW giving Bolsonaro a platform.

“Bolsonaro’s event is part of a tour that seeks to validate him as a viable candidate for the Brazilian presidency and soften his bigoted image to court more liberal voters," the letter says. "We are writing this letter to protest his ability to do so in your institution. By welcoming him into your university and allowing him to speak, your institution would be helping a racist, sexist, homophobic right-wing extremist to achieve international recognition and solidify the political viability of his candidacy, effectively putting vulnerable communities in Brazil in great danger of increased discrimination and violence. This letter was written by Brazilian academics and political activists who are based all over the world, and is signed by academics of other nationalities who are committed to antifascist politics and oppose the spread of far-right fascism globally."

The director of the Brazil Initiative, Mark S. Langevin, did not respond to Inside Higher Ed’s request for comment Thursday afternoon. But in a written response to the open letter published Oct. 5, Langevin defended the Brazil Initiative’s commitment to contributing to debate by inviting Brazilian political leaders to speak and described the event as an opportunity "to question Bolsonaro about his commitment to democratic rule and positions on governance."

“Rather than avoiding a discussion with Federal Deputy Bolsonaro, we have chosen to engage him in a conversation about his story, his values and principles, and his vision of governance in Brazil. We trust that such a discussion is vital to better understanding Brazil and its political leadership at this moment while also providing a compelling forum for exploring Deputy Bolsonaro’s views on democracy and human rights. We understand and appreciate the concerns presented by those who oppose Jair Bolsonaro’s presidential candidacy and political views, but are committed to providing a forum for democratic debate on the future of Brazil," wrote Langevin, a research professor in Elliott School of International Affairs.

A spokeswoman for GW said the event is still scheduled to take place today.

October 13, 2017

A survey of historians has found that their relatively slow adoption of new technologies has “as much to do with a lack of resources” as “stereotypical fustiness and fear.”

A lack of financial support, poor training and limited incentives for doing digital work were among the reasons listed by faculty to explain why many were wary of trying new technologies.

The survey, published by the American Historical Association, includes responses from some 1,266 historians at four-year colleges across the U.S. It asked how historians use digital technologies in their research, using many of the same questions as an earlier 2010 survey.

While almost all historians said they used library-supported databases, online archives or digital cameras, fewer than one in five said that they used more advanced digital tools such as text mining or statistical analysis software. Most historians said that they only adopted digital tools when they found there was no other way to resolve an issue in their research.

Though it's often presumed that older historians are more reluctant to adopt new tools, the survey found little difference in the practices of historians of all ages. One early-career respondent observed that “even as a relatively young scholar, I find new technologies to be intimidating.” Nearly 60 percent of respondents said that a lack of time was a major barrier to learning how to use new technologies.

October 13, 2017

Today on the Academic Minute, Susan Dicklitch-Nelson, professor of government at Franklin and Marshall College, examines where tolerance for LGBTQ individuals stands at this moment in time. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

October 12, 2017

Wheelock College will merge into Boston University in June under an agreement announced Wednesday, bringing together the two institutions with campuses separated by about a mile.

All of Wheelock's assets and liabilities will be transferred to BU June 1, 2018, provided regulators approve. The agreement comes several weeks after the two institutions announced in August that they had started merger talks. Wheelock, by far the smaller of the two institutions, was seeking a merger partner as it faced enrollment and financial challenges.

A new school of education, the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development, will be created by the merger as BU's School of Education is combined with Wheelock's School of Education, Child Life and Family Studies. Income from Wheelock's endowment will go toward the new college.

Current Wheelock students in good standing will be able to finish their academic programs at BU. They will become students in existing BU programs, continue to study in Wheelock programs being incorporated into BU or enroll in transitional programs in which they will finish their Wheelock courses of study. Tuition for current Wheelock students will remain at Wheelock levels but will be subject to the same annual percentage increases applied to BU students. Financial aid packages guaranteed by Wheelock will not be changed. All students seeking admission after the merger's completion will be subject to BU admissions requirements and tuition.

The two institutions have agreed on a process for transferring tenured Wheelock faculty members to positions at BU. Nontenured Wheelock faculty will be considered individually for positions at BU based on program need, and Wheelock staff will be considered for positions at BU. As soon as the merger is completed, Wheelock's campus will be used for BU academic programs.

David Chard, the president of Wheelock, will become interim dean of the new Wheelock College of Education and Human Development starting June 1. He will be appointed to that position for at least two years.

“I believe this merger is our strongest option for preserving the mission of Wheelock College and the legacy of Lucy Wheelock long into the future, and I am pleased that we have reached this milestone,” Chard said in a statement. “[BU] President [Robert] Brown and I have discussed our intent to support Wheelock students and alumni during this transition and welcome them as part of the Boston University community.”


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