Higher Education Quick Takes

Quick Takes

February 12, 2018

University of Maine System chancellor James Page has a financial interest in a firm linked to an energy company in the midst of brokering a $150 million contract with the college, the Portland Press Herald reported Friday.

Page signed a personal loan guarantee to his former employer, James W. Sewall Co., which has a partnership with ConEdison Solutions, an energy services company that beat three finalists to negotiate for a contract to supply steam and electricity to Maine's Orono campus. According to the Portland Press Herald, Page supported the loan when he was chief executive officer of the Old Town-based engineering firm. According to university system counsel James Thelen, the loan hasn’t yet been paid off.

The university's code of ethics explicitly bars the university chancellor and president from benefiting financially from a contract. The code also mentions that such conflicts of interest are prohibited by state law.

The university picked ConEdison over three other companies because it planned to use renewable energy, powering the Orono campus with wood-fired steam and electricity from a defunct paper mill and a biomass plant in Old Town.

The potential conflict was brought to light when a Feb. 5 report by the Portland Press Herald revealed Jake Ward, the university’s vice president for innovation and economic development, had given ConEdison information to help the company win the lucrative energy contract. Ward denied the allegations.

An audit committee of the system trustees found no evidence of misconduct by either Ward or Page, the Portland Press Herald reported. But while Page “doesn’t have any policy role” in the contract negotiations right now, Thelen told the Portland Press Herald, the final contract will need the approval of the entire Board of Trustees. The committee recommended Page recuse himself in case Sewall Co. does benefit from the contract.

February 12, 2018

A professor of journalism at Northwestern University whom 10 alumnae and employees accused of misconduct is taking a leave of absence, the Chicago Tribune reported. Alec Klein, the professor, “has requested a leave of absence from all of his positions at Northwestern until the university completes its investigation, and the university has agreed that is the appropriate action,” Alan Cubbage, university spokesperson, said in a statement.

Last week, a group of former students and employees of the Justice Project at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism published an open letter accusing Klein of sexual harassment, abusive behavior and bullying. Klein has denied the claims, saying in a statement that many came from a “disgruntled former employee.” Northwestern has said that some allegations dating back several years were previously found by the university to be unsubstantiated. But new allegations included the letter are now being investigated.

Klein’s attorney, Andrew T. Miltenberg, said in a separate statement that Klein denies the allegations but “intends to respect the confidentiality and privacy” of Northwestern’s investigation. Records obtained by the Tribune show that Northwestern's human resources department recently reviewed complaints made about Klein's behavior and did not determine the allegations to be substantial enough to launch a formal investigation into Klein. Northwestern’s Office of Equal Opportunity and Access said that it would pursue “informal action,” however, such as “a warning to cease current behaviors, no-contact directives, and/or an educational conversation with the respondent or others.”

Meribah Knight, a Nashville Public Radio reporter who graduated from Medill in 2009 and who is one of Klein’s public accusers, said she and her colleagues have received more than two dozen emails from others voicing similar complaints against Klein since last week. “I’m really glad that people felt that they could come forward, but it was sad to see so many of the same patterns emerging,” she told the Tribune.

February 12, 2018

Today on the Academic Minute, David C. Richardson, associate professor of biology at the State University of New York at New Paltz, discusses how lakes can show signs of a warmer planet. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

February 9, 2018

A student in an online sociology course at Southern New Hampshire University had to appeal repeatedly when her professor gave her a failing grade on a key assignment. The problem, BuzzFeed reported, was that the assignment was to compare a social norm in the United States with another country. The student selected Australia as the comparison country, and the instructor rejected the assignment, saying that Australia was a continent, not a country. It took multiple appeals before the instructor relented.

A spokeswoman for Southern New Hampshire University confirmed the facts of the article to Inside Higher Ed. "Yes, it’s true. We take this concern seriously and our academic team is working to resolve the matter," the spokeswoman said.

February 9, 2018

The budget deal senators approved Friday morning would benefit two colleges in Kentucky, the home state of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But because the Senate did not approve the deal until Friday, a government shutdown started. The House of Representatives approved the deal Friday as well, so the shutdown will only last hours and should be over by the start of the workday today.

The budget agreement exempts Berea College, a nonprofit Christian college, from a provision taxing private college endowments in the Republican tax plan passed in December.

The deal also grants the secretary of education added authority to waive sanctions on colleges with high student loan default rates. That provision will most likely affect Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, which for the past three years has skated close to the cutoff point for access to Title IV federal student aid.

February 9, 2018

The University of Wisconsin Madison on Thursday announced a free tuition plan for many in-state students that will start in the fall, the latest development in the spread of free public college.

UW Madison will pay four years of tuition and segregated fees for incoming freshmen from Wisconsin who come from families with annual adjusted gross household incomes of $56,000 or less under a new program dubbed Bucky’s Tuition Promise. Transfer students meeting the income requirements will have two years of tuition and segregated fees paid. About 800 new students will have tuition covered each year, the university estimates.

The $56,000 cutoff was chosen because it is close to Wisconsin’s median household family income of $54,610. Income only -- not assets -- will be counted, and students will not have to fill out a separate application. The award will be made using information from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which students will still need to file annually.

Those are important differences from some other states and public institutions that have put free tuition programs into place. The University of Michigan this summer announced a program offering four years of free tuition for in-state students with family incomes up to $65,000 per year, but that program has asset limits. New York State’s much-publicized Excelsior Scholarship requires a separate application.

UW Madison’s plan will cover the cost of tuition and fees no matter how many credits students take -- another key difference from New York, which requires a student to complete 30 credits per year. The university is urging students to enroll full-time, however, as the program is limited to eight semesters for incoming freshmen and four for incoming transfers. The program only covers fall and spring semesters.

The university expects the program to cost about $825,000 per year, per class, above current institutional financial aid spending. That means the university will spend roughly $3.3 million per year once four classes are enrolled. Funding will be drawn from private gifts and institutional resources. Tax dollars won’t be used, according to the university.

The program is a last-dollar award, meaning it is structured to plug the gap between the tuition and fees students are charged and any financial aid they receive. Students could still receive additional financial aid to cover other expenses like housing and food. They could also take out loans for living expenses.

February 9, 2018

The American Society for Engineering Education published two new reports as part of its Transforming Undergraduate Education in Engineering project. A previously published report from the society focused on input from industry, while the new reports offer “Insight From Tomorrow’s Engineers” and “Voices on Women’s Participation and Retention,” respectively. The society’s project seeks to advance undergraduate engineering education by building consensus among different groups as to what it should entail.

Student insights from the Phase II report include that the discipline isn’t doing enough to produce “T-shaped” professionals, or those who have technical expertise, adaptability and so-called soft skills. Students also say they want real-world applications and design-based projects. Recommendations from the Phase III project on women in engineering include creating an online “diversity dashboard” for the field that shows the demographic makeup of engineering schools, making gender diversity an institutional value and promoting the idea that diversity translates to value in industry. The society’s final, Phase IV report, focused on professional engineering societies, will be published later this year.

February 9, 2018

Maryland’s governor offered as much as $100 million over 10 years to historically black universities, attempting to end a long-running lawsuit over whether the state caused segregation at historically black institutions by allowing predominantly white universities to duplicate successful programs.

The settlement proposal is more than twice an amount offered earlier in the case, which stretches back to 2006, The Washington Post reported. Governor Larry Hogan offered the proposal Wednesday, a day after a federal judge granted a temporary reprieve as the state appeals an order from November. The November order would have created new high-demand programs at Maryland’s four historically black institutions and forced funding for them under court supervision.

In a letter, Hogan’s chief legal counsel called the new settlement proposal a serious commitment he believes goes “well beyond what the law requires.” But the top lawyer for the coalition that sued the state said the offer does not address the fact that more than 122 academic programs at traditionally white institutions are unduplicated elsewhere in the state system, compared to only 11 at historically black institutions. He called for new programs at historically black institutions and state commitments against unnecessary duplications.

February 9, 2018

Today on the Academic Minute, Il Hyun Cho, assistant professor in the department of government and law and the Asian studies program at Lafayette, details popular myths about this hermit kingdom. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

February 8, 2018

Ten women -- former students and employees of Northwestern University's journalism school -- have issued an open letter accusing a prominent professor there of repeated sexual harassment, as well as behavior that belittled and insulted people. The letter was published in full in The Chicago Reader. The professor, Alec Klein, has denied the allegations. He gave a statement to CBS News Chicago saying in part, "I categorically deny the allegations and intend to take legal action. Many of the allegations involved a disgruntled former employee who had been on a corrective-action plan for poor work performance several years ago."

The letter was also sent to Northwestern. The university issued this statement Wednesday evening: "The university takes seriously all complaints that are brought to its attention. Many of the allegations were contained in a complaint brought several years ago by a former employee. At that time, the university conducted a thorough investigation and the complaint was not substantiated. Northwestern will now review the allegations received today."

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