Higher Education Quick Takes

Quick Takes

January 12, 2021

The University of Mississippi is moving ahead with its termination of Garrett Felber, assistant professor of history, its provost said in a formal response to the American Historical Association. The group inquired about Felber’s controversial termination, which many of his supporters have called politically motivated or retaliatory, given that his primary offense is insisting on emailing with his department chair during his research leave instead of videochatting with her.

In his letter to the AHA, Noel Wilkin, Mississippi’s provost, defended Felber’s chair’s decision to fire him, effective next academic year. Wilkin said the chair, Noell Wilson, "was doing exactly what all universities expect their chairs to do -- ensure that faculty members are willing and able to follow the rules and processes involved in securing external funding that commit the institution to a financial agreement. In fact, I respect that Dr. Wilson chose to make a very difficult recommendation when she lost confidence that an untenured faculty member would act in good faith and be responsive to her repeated efforts to help him succeed."

Wilkin said Felber wasn’t so much fired as given a 12-month notice of nonrenewal. While faculty members "clearly have a role in assessing the teaching, research and service of their colleagues," he said, "this decision had nothing to do with teaching, research, or service. Therefore, faculty were not consulted regarding Dr. Wilson’s recommendation."

Wilkin also denied that the decision was "motivated by or in any way related to the topics of Dr. Felber’s research, including the history of the carceral state and race, or his work with those who are incarcerated. We have other faculty members on our campus who have been engaged in this work since before he was hired and they will continue to do so moving forward." He also suggested that the AHA failed "to appreciate that there may be other relevant data that cannot be broadly shared due to the confidential nature of personnel issues."

Felber said via email that no confidential "personnel issues" had ever been brought to his attention, but he offered no other comment. Many scholars have pledged not to speak at Ole Miss until he is reinstated.

January 12, 2021

Several higher education systems and organizations applauded California governor Gavin Newsom’s budget proposal this week. Those groups include the University of California system, the California State University system, the Community College League of California, the UC Student Association and the California Faculty Association.

“Governor Newsom’s budget provides $136.3 million of new ongoing support to the University of California, including $103.9 million to partly restore the $300.8 million in reductions made last year to UC. The proposal also includes $32.4 million for ongoing targeted investments in other areas, such as expanding access for student mental health services,” the UC said in a statement. “We thank Governor Newsom for these critical investments in UC students and California’s future, especially given the fiscal uncertainty during COVID-19.”

The budget proposal also provides $144.5 million in recurring funding for the Cal State system, which has 23 campuses and enrolls more than 480,000 students. Additionally, the budget provides $225 million in one-time funding to the system, a large portion of which would go to delayed maintenance of infrastructure projects.

“Governor Newsom’s 2021-22 January budget proposal provides a welcome reinvestment in the California State University and demonstrates his continued belief in the power of public higher education in developing future leaders of our state and improving the lives of the residents of California,” Cal State chancellor Joseph Castro wrote in a statement.

The Community College League of California similarly commended the proposal.

“We are pleased to see additional investment in workforce development to build stronger linkages between higher education and gainful employment as California Community Colleges are best suited to support displaced Californians' return to work,” the organization said in a press release. “Most significantly, the budget proposal helps stabilize districts’ funding by buying down $1.1 billion in deferrals.”

Among students and faculty groups, the response was also one of approval.

“We are encouraged by Governor Gavin Newsom’s 2021-22 budget proposal and welcome his long-term investment in higher education and in the California State University system,” the California Faculty Association, the union for Cal State faculty members, wrote in a statement.

The UC Student Association called the plan “a strong step in the right direction to support recovery with equity for students attending institutions of higher education.”

The Legislature has until June 15 to pass a budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

January 12, 2021

Today on the Academic Minute, part of Bentley University Week, Fred Ledley, a professor of natural and applied sciences, examines whether drug companies are making significant profits. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

January 11, 2021

Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., announced Friday it would rescind and revoke an honorary degree it gave President Donald Trump. The decision was made following the violent riots in the U.S. Capitol and years of pressure from faculty members and alumni. Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y., also said Friday that its Board of Trustees voted to rescind an honorary degree it gave Trump.

“In a special session Thursday of the Executive Committee of the Lehigh University Board of Trustees, the members voted to rescind and revoke the honorary degree granted to Donald J. Trump in 1988. The full Board of Trustees affirmed the decision today,” the university wrote in a short statement Friday. A Lehigh spokesperson said officials would not provide any additional comment.

Wagner also did not provide additional comment beyond news of the board vote.

Faculty members and alumni for years pushed Lehigh to rescind Trump’s degree, arguing that the president’s behavior was incompatible with the university’s values. In 2018, a majority of faculty members, 83 percent, at the private university supported a motion to rescind the president’s honor. The university's Board of Trustees twice in the past voted not to take action on Trump’s honorary degree.

Trump was awarded an honorary degree from Wagner in 2004. He still holds two honorary degrees from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., awarded in 2012 and 2017. The president also previously held an honorary degree from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland, but it was revoked in 2015 after Trump announced his intention to ban all Muslims from entering the United States.

January 11, 2021

Stanford University this weekend scrapped plans to bring freshmen and sophomores back to campus for its winter quarter, citing the worsening COVID-19 situation in California. For undergraduates, only those with special circumstances will be approved to live on campus. Most instruction will take place online. 

“We are now at the worst point of the pandemic so far. Health officials said this week that before Thanksgiving, each day there were four-to-five positive COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population here in Santa Clara County. Recently, it has been approximately 50 cases per 100,000 population -- a tenfold increase,” Stanford officials said in a message to campus. “Stanford’s hospital is now caring for its largest number of COVID-19 patients during the pandemic, including patients transferred from hospitals in other hard-hit parts of California.”

Additionally, as of Jan. 8, 43 graduate and undergraduate students are in isolation at Stanford. (Those undergraduates were approved to live on campus for resident assistant positions or other special circumstances.)

The university said those cases are not related to community spread, but rather to students arriving on campus. The week of Dec. 28, the campus saw 11 positive test results, a new weekly record. 

Stanford found itself in a similar situation this summer, when after announcing tentative plans in June to bring freshmen and sophomores back to campus, the administration reversed those plans in August.

January 11, 2021

As expected, President-elect Joe Biden will, upon taking office Jan. 20, instruct the Education Department to continue the pause excusing student loan borrowers from making payments, a top economic adviser in the incoming administration said.

David Kamin, who will be deputy director of the National Economic Council in the Biden administration, did not reveal additional details including how much longer borrowers will not have to make their monthly repayments in a call with reporters Friday.

President Trump in August excused borrowers from making payments through the end of the year, as unemployment surged from business closures during the pandemic. With borrowers facing the prospect of having to make payments again, then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Dec. 6 extended the moratorium until Feb. 1.

Kamin, a New York University law professor, said in a briefing on Biden’s economic plans that the president-elect supports asking Congress to erase $10,000 from the debt of all borrowers. He said, without giving more details, that Biden also plans to expand income-based repayment plans and reform the currently little-used debt forgiveness program for borrowers working in public service.

However, others, like new Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, and Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, have called on Biden to go further by canceling $50,000 from all student loan borrowers’ debt and bypassing Congress by acting through an executive order.

Seven advocacy groups also pressed Biden to go further on Friday. “Cancellation of $10,000 per borrower would only be a modest down payment on a $1.7 trillion crisis that started long before COVID-19 and that disproportionately burdens borrowers of color. Far more debt cancellation is required to provide the aid that 44 million families and the overall economy need,” said the groups, including the American Federation of Teachers, Americans for Financial Reform, the Center for Responsible Lending, the National Consumer Law Center (on behalf of its low-income clients), Student Debt Crisis and Young Invincibles.

The groups also continued to call on Biden to act on his own. “We know President-Elect Biden realizes how important student debt relief is, and how many other battles Congress will have in this critical moment. The surest way to get immediate cancellation is through executive action,” they said.

January 11, 2021

John Eastman, a conservative legal scholar who raised widely discredited questions about whether Kamala Harris could serve as vice president as the child of immigrants, is under fire again for appearing onstage with Rudy Giuliani at the rally that preceded Wednesday’s attack on the Capitol. Giuliani called for “trial by combat.” Eastman did not object and told the crowd that the 2020 presidential election was illegitimate.

Asked if he supported the insurrection, Eastman said via email, “What a ridiculous question. Of course I do not condone the violence at the capitol. But it was not a riot. It was perhaps a hundred thugs out of a quarter-million or half-million people.” Eastman also said that some of the rioters were “clearly Antifa,” even though the Federal Bureau of Investigation said on Friday that there was no evidence of that.

Eastman said he didn’t think the riot was “incited by anything I said,” either. “My short statement at the rally is verifiably true. It is a fact that state election officials violated state law in the conduct of the election.” Eastman’s statements directly contradict assessments from the Department of Homeland Security and other groups that the November election was the most secure in American history.

Eastman is finishing out a term as a visiting conservative professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. The university, which previously said it would not take action against Eastman for his comments on Harris, said that it would not fire him for his statements last week, either. In statement, the university said Eastman’s comments in Washington were outside the scope of his Boulder work but nonetheless “baseless and unfounded.”

At Chapman University, where Eastman is the Henry Salvatori Professor of Law & Community Service, professors and students are calling for his removal. President Daniele Struppa said in an updated statement Friday that he can’t fire Eastman because the university’s Faculty Manual “does not allow me to decide on my own that any faculty is a criminal or that they should be disbarred and therefore fired, which is what I am being asked to do.”

Struppa said this is “the hard part of being in a democracy. This is the very freedom that we fought to defend as terrorists attacked our Capitol building. But this challenge is not new. Every time we are assaulted by terrorists, there are those who call for a suspension of the rules, for the elimination of fair process, for faster, quicker, more exemplary actions. I realize that my position has made me very unpopular with many of you. As much as that saddens me, it will not compel me to violate the rules under which the university operates.”

January 11, 2021

Arizona State University will get the most aid of the $20.2 billion Congress is sending colleges and universities in the coronavirus relief package President Trump signed last month, according to an estimate by the American Council on Education.

The $110.8 million the university is receiving is followed by the $98.1 million going to Miami Dade Community College and the $86.7 million the University of Central Florida will get.

ACE estimated the amount of aid going to 3,500 public and private nonprofit colleges and universities. It does not include another $1.7 billion in the relief package for historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions or $113 million set aside for institutions with the greatest unmet need or those not served by the primary formula, such as independent graduate schools, as well as another $681 million dedicated for emergency aid for students attending for-profit universities.

The colleges receiving the most funds are getting more than the combined amount institutions are getting in some states. Higher education institutions in Alaska are only receiving a total of $18.8 million.

Institutions in California would receive $2.7 billion, according to the estimate, followed by the $1.7 billion going to Texas institutions and the $1.4 billion going to colleges and universities in New York.

Colleges and universities with large endowments are receiving only half of the aid they would have otherwise received. Harvard University will only get $6.9 million, according to the estimate.

January 11, 2021

The Modern Language Association changed its bylaws to make advocacy part of the job description for delegate assembly members. Delegates approved the changes by a margin of 9 to 1 during the association’s annual meeting Saturday. The vote followed a virtual discussion among delegates about what institutions are doing right in terms of supporting faculty members during the pandemic and what the MLA might do to further support its members. Several commenters said that institutional responses to the pandemic have only underscored the precarity of non-tenure-track instructors, and that colleges and universities seem more open than ever about their desire to convert tenure-track jobs to less secure, non-tenure-track ones.

Paula Krebs, the MLA’s executive director, said after the meeting that higher education’s “most vulnerable employees during this pandemic are part-time employees, both faculty and staff. Employees without health-care benefits are of course in more danger than anyone else.” The MLA’s Executive Council is therefore hoping that delegates’ new advocacy function will give them “opportunities to use MLA resources to make some change at their own institutions and in their regions.” The council hopes to keep delegates engaged with the association year-round, making them aware of MLA policies and recommendations “that could make a difference on their own campuses,” Krebs said, such as the MLA’s Guidelines for Search Committees and Job Seekers or the council's recent Statement on COVID-19 and Academic Labor and its update.

Delegates’ new advocacy role, which is being referred to a “network,” is voluntary, for now. Christopher Newfield, professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said the new advocacy network will improve MLA member services, MLA knowledge of campus issues and conditions, and on-the-ground campus knowledge of MLA standards, resources, recommendations and reports. “There are lots of [MLA] reports, on topics like ethical treatment of graduate students and overuse of non-tenure-track faculty, that could be used to improve standards in the country’s struggling colleges and universities,” Newfield said. “A benefit to higher ed would be colleges more likely to respond to the educational goals of their faculty than simply to budget pressures.”

Delegate Lee Skallerup Bessette, a learning design specialist at Georgetown University (and an Inside Higher Ed blog contributor), said the MLA’s increased advocacy on contingent faculty issues is a “welcome shift, and an embrace of what the MLA always could have been. I just hope it’s not too late.”

The MLA awarded more than $100,000 in emergency grants to contingent and unemployed faculty members without health insurance during COVID-19.

January 11, 2021

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released Friday, compared the rates of COVID-19 exposure in counties with large universities with remote instruction and with in-person instruction.

"U.S. counties with large colleges or universities with remote instruction (n = 22) experienced a 17.9 percent decrease in incidence and university counties with in-person instruction (n = 79) experienced a 56 percent increase in incidence, comparing the 21-day periods before and after classes started. Counties without large colleges or universities (n = 3,009) experienced a 6 percent decrease in incidence during similar time frames," the study said.

The study said, "Additional implementation of effective mitigation activities at colleges and universities with in-person instruction could minimize on-campus COVID-19 transmission and reduce county-level incidence."

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