Higher Education Quick Takes

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Thursday, August 20, 2015 - 4:19am

The faculty union for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education has gone to state court to seek an injunction to block the system from starting background checks on all employees, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Union leaders say that state law requires only that those who teach or work with minors be subject to background checks, and that most professors do not teach or work with minors. Union leaders also note that the law doesn't count as a minor those who are enrolled at a college or visiting a college as a prospective student. But university leaders say that all campus employees should have background checks because many minors visit campuses for summer programs or other events.

Thursday, August 20, 2015 - 4:27am

Zygmunt Bauman, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Leeds and considered one of the world's leading sociologists, has been accused of serial "self-plagiarism" or reusing old material in new books, Times Higher Education reported. A new paper states that 12 of his books contain “substantial quantities of material that appear to have been copied near-verbatim and without acknowledgment from at least one of the other books sampled. Several books contain very substantial quantities of text -- running into several thousands of words, and in the worst case almost 20,000 -- that have been reused from earlier Bauman books without acknowledgment.” Bauman and Polity, the publisher of many of the books, declined to comment.

Thursday, August 20, 2015 - 3:00am

In today's Academic Minute, Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan, a paleobiologist at the University of Cape Town, explores her research into dinosaur fossils. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015 - 3:00am

A federal appeals judge said Tuesday that student loan guaranty agencies are not allowed to charge collection fees to borrowers who default on their debt but quickly start repaying.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of a woman, Bryana Bible, suing United Student Aid Funds, known as USA Funds, for charging her $4,500 in collection fees after she defaulted on her loans but agreed to start repaying them within several weeks.

The appeals panel, voting 2-1, effectively sided with the Obama administration, which published a policy statement last month banning guaranty agencies from charging collection fees when defaulted borrowers take action to start repaying their loans within 60 days. The administration was not directly part of the case, but it filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the fee prohibition, which has been praised by consumer advocates.

USA Funds and other guaranty agencies argued that federal law allows them to charge fees in those circumstances and that the Obama administration wrongly and unfairly is trying to ban them retroactively. That argument was mostly rejected by the two judges on the panel who ruled in Bible's favor.

Robert P. Murray, vice president of corporate and marketing communications at USA Funds, said in a statement that the company was “disappointed” in the ruling and planned to ask the full appeals court to review the case.

“To be clear, this case is not just about the assessment of collection fees on a student loan borrower who has defaulted on her loans,” he said. "If allowed to stand, this ruling could cost U.S. taxpayers and diminish the support that tens of thousands of students receive to resolve their loan defaults and restore their good credit through rehabilitation of their defaulted loans,” he said.

Guaranty agencies like USA Funds have previously argued that reducing the fees they can collect may force them to scale back the counseling and default prevention efforts they provide borrowers.

USA Funds is separately suing the Obama administration over the fee policy in federal district court in Washington, D.C., where Tuesday’s appeals court opinion is not binding.
 
Wednesday, August 19, 2015 - 3:00am

Adjuncts at Seattle University may count their impounded union election ballots, a local National Labor Relations Board office said in a decision released Tuesday. The university is planning an appeal. The NLRB office's decision was issued several months after the national board sent a string of cases involving adjunct union bids at religiously affiliated colleges back to their respective regional offices for re-evaluation. The re-evaluation was based on a new framework for determining the NLRB’s jurisdiction over religious colleges and universities established by the board in its December decision regarding Pacific Lutheran University. In that case, the board decided that based on a number of factors, the adjuncts who wished to form a union could do so because their jobs were not religious in nature. Over all, the decision asserted that just because a college or university has a religious affiliation doesn’t mean non-tenure-track faculty can’t form unions.

Local boards have ruled similarly in recent months in cases involving adjuncts at Duquesne University and St. Xavier University, which, like Seattle, are Roman Catholic. SEIU and pro-union adjuncts took the ruling as good news. In a statement, Anne Hepfer, an instructor of English, said she expected the national board to reject the request for review that the university signaled it was planning to file. “Why is our administration continuing to waste precious tuition dollars in an attempt to impede my colleagues and me from forming a union?” she asked.

Via email, Dean Forbes, a university spokesman, said Seattle wasn’t surprised by the decision and intends to file a request for review with the national board -- which could be the first step in a court fight over NLRB jurisdiction over the university. “The petition is a necessary procedural step that preserves the university’s options to seek court review of the newly established criteria by a divided NLRB for determining whether it has jurisdiction over religiously affiliated colleges and universities,” Forbes said. “The issue is not whether employees may unionize. Rather, the issue is whether the government should have influence or control over the religious mission of Seattle University.”

The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities had no immediate comment. William Herbert, executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions at Hunter College of the City University of New York, said it’s “probable that at least one of the at-issue religiously affiliated colleges will challenge the NLRB’s assertion of jurisdiction in court” if the national board eventually rules in favor the adjunct unions.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015 - 3:00am

M. D. Anderson Cancer Center is taking steps to increase shared governance and due process following its June censure by the American Association of University Professors. U.S. Navy Admiral William McRaven, retired, the University of Texas System’s new chancellor, directed the center to establish a shared governance committee to serve as an advisory body to President Ronald DePinho as he establishes a more “democratic” system of governance, The Cancer Letter reported. In a letter to DePinho, McRaven asked the president to address long-standing concerns about due process in the center’s “term tenure” system, which were at the heart of the AAUP censure in June. (Many critics also maintain that M. D. Anderson’s seven-year, renewable tenure policy is not tenure at all.)

DePinho and Gary Whitman, professor of radiology and radiation oncology and chair of the Faculty Senate, announced the formation of the committee to faculty members last week. Michael DeCesare, a professor of sociology at Merrimack College and chair of AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance, wrote in a post on AAUP’s “Academe” blog, “Hopefully, the administration’s moves toward improving academic due process and instituting a shared governance model indicate that it is actively working toward getting itself removed from the AAUP censure list.”

Wednesday, August 19, 2015 - 3:00am

Eleven state attorneys general on Tuesday urged the U.S. Department of Education to seek their input as it develops a process for discharging federal loans for students who attended colleges that defrauded them.

In a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the coalition of state attorneys general, led by Maura Healey of Massachusetts, a Democrat, recommend that the department allow states to participate in the loan discharge cases and submit evidence of fraud they’ve gathered against a college.

They also urge the department to come up with a process to grant group loan discharges and to expand the discharges beyond just federal direct loans to PLUS loans and federally guaranteed loans.

The Education Department said Tuesday that it would begin accepting online loan discharge applications of former Heald College students who attended certain programs after 2010. The department has said it will automatically grant those discharges based on evidence it already had about Heald misrepresenting job placement rates.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015 - 3:00am

The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday unveiled draft guidance for colleges on how to handle the privacy of student medical records when they are part of a court case.

The guidance follows a high-profile case in which the University of Oregon obtained the campus therapy records of a student who sued the university for mishandling her report that she was gang-raped by three Oregon basketball players.

Many legal and privacy experts believed that the university’s handling of the records was legal because the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, doesn’t explicitly prohibit it. Many victims’ advocates and some members of Congress were outraged by the case, and urged the Education Department to close that “loophole.”

Kathleen Styles, the chief privacy officer at the Education Department, wrote in a blog post Tuesday that the department planned to tell colleges to handle the privacy of student medical records under FERPA similarly to the way health care providers and hospitals are required to treat such records.

“We want to set the expectation that, with respect to litigation between institutions of higher education and students, institutions generally should not share student medical records with school attorneys or courts, without a court order or written consent,” Styles wrote.

The department will accept public comments on the guidance until Oct. 2.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015 - 4:22am

The Islamic State beheaded an antiquities scholar in the Syrian city of Palmyra, The Guardian reported, and hung his body on a column in the city's main square. The Syrian state antiquities chief, Maamoun Abdulkarim, said that the scholar who was killed, Khaled Asaad, was 82 and had worked on antiquities in Palmyra for more than 50 years. “Just imagine that such a scholar who gave such memorable services to the place and to history would be beheaded … and his corpse still hanging from one of the ancient columns in the center of a square in Palmyra,” Abdulkarim said.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015 - 3:00am

In today's Academic Minute, Gillian Ryan, an assistant professor of physics at Kettering University, discusses her work developing technology improvements for a start-up that makes nonelectric incubating blankets to help fight infant mortality in the developing world. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

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