Higher Education Quick Takes

Quick Takes

January 19, 2023

Today on the Academic Minute: Kerry Whigham, assistant professor of genocide and mass atrocity prevention and co-director of the Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention at Binghamton University, explores possible ways to stop genocides before they get started. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

January 19, 2023

The Florida Board of Governors is asking the state’s public higher ed institutions for information on any students treated for gender dysphoria.

According to a document that a spokesperson for the board provided to Inside Higher Ed, institutions are being asked to collect and report a wide range of data on transgender and gender-nonconforming students and their interactions with student health centers.

The information requested includes any instances when individuals asked for, were referred for or were provided with “sex-reassignment treatment” by university health centers; the number of individuals diagnosed with a gender identity disorder as a result of those inquiries; and the number who were prescribed puberty blockers, hormones or hormone antagonists. The order also requests the number of individuals who underwent a variety of gender-affirming surgeries, including mastectomies, breast augmentations, vaginoplasties and phalloplasties, among others.

The order also requests a breakdown of these data by age, “including those who were under 18 at the time of any encounter or treatment.” The directive comes just over two months after state medical officials, at Republican governor Ron DeSantis’s urging, banned gender-affirming therapy or surgery for minors.

In an email statement announcing the directive, a spokesperson for the Board of Governors wrote that institutions “are to ensure responses do not contain personally identifiable information or protected health information and are provided in an aggregated and de-identified format.”

The order directs the system trustees to collect the information from each university in their purview and forward it to the education unit of the governor’s Office of Policy and Budget by Feb. 10.

January 18, 2023

Erika López Prater, the adjunct in art history who showed an image of Muhammad in class and then was not rehired by Hamline University, is suing the institution.

“What has not been discussed, however, is how Hamline’s actions and statements may have constituted religious discrimination, defamation, and other violations of law,” said a statement from the law firm that is representing her. “Hamline’s actions have caused significant damage to Dr. López Prater. In the near term, she has lost the income from her adjunct position. She alleges she also suffered significant emotional distress due to her mistreatment by Hamline. In the long term, Dr. López Prater alleges that her personal and professional reputation, and her future employment prospects, have been irreparably harmed by Hamline’s conduct.”

The law firm’s statement said López Prater would be suing Hamline for religious discrimination and defamation.

Hamline did not respond to a request for comment.

However, the president of Hamline, Fayneese Miller, and the chair of the Board of Trustees, Ellen Watters, released a joint statement Tuesday evening that said in part, “In the interest of hearing from and supporting our Muslim students, language was used that does not reflect our sentiments on academic freedom. Based on all that we have learned, we have determined that our usage of the term ‘Islamophobic’ was therefore flawed. We strongly support academic freedom for all members of the Hamline community. We also believe that academic freedom and support for students can and should co-exist. How this duality is exemplified on our campuses, especially in the current multicultural environment in which we live, is an exciting, robust, and honest conversation for academics, intellectuals, students, and the public to have.”

January 18, 2023

The Office of Federal Student Aid didn’t follow best practices in budgeting, planning and managing the modernization of its student loan system, the Education Department’s Office of Inspector General found in an audit published Tuesday.

FSA staff didn’t complete budget requests for many components of the modernization until after the bid solicitations were issued. Staff also didn’t follow other required procedures that would’ve allowed “appropriate officials to agree on the project’s objectives, requirements, and funding,” the report says.

The Next Gen initiative would centralize the student loan servicing system as part of a broader overhaul of FSA’s operations. The project has been in the works for years and faced several delays. The audit reviewed the agency's planning for and managing of the transition from October 2016 to July 31, 2021.

FSA officials said last year that previous efforts were unsuccessful because of “budget deficiencies and poorly scoped solutions due to overly optimistic cost and procurement expectations; poor proposals from offerors due to unclear and overly complex solicitation requirements; unclear timelines due to inadequate time and resources dedicated to implementation; confusion and frustration among stakeholders, including Congress, due to inadequately defined changes in strategy and a failure to account for constituent feedback; and changes in direction under previous administrations,” according to the report.

The inspector general’s office wrote in the audit that those problems might have been avoided if the agency had followed the required project management steps and best practices.

The Government Accountability Office said in a 2021 report that the Office of Federal Student Aid was understaffed. The agency didn’t receive additional funding in the most recent federal budget.

The inspector general’s office recommended that the FSA chief operating officer Richard Cordray develop internal controls to ensure that someone is tasked with overseeing the project management planning process, that individuals are held accountable when key processes aren’t followed and that required documents are completed and maintained.

Additionally, the office recommended that FSA create a policy to require a completed and approved budget initiative request before bid solicitations are issued.

FSA agreed with both recommendations but didn’t explicitly agree or disagree with the inspector general’s findings, according to the report.

“FSA stated that while it appreciates and benefits from the best practices identified by the OIG for the implementation of the Next Gen initiative, the OIG evaluated the effort based on ‘best practices identified by OIG rather than based on a standard of legal compliance,’” the report says.

January 18, 2023

The private, for-profit Bay State College in Boston will lose its accreditation unless an appeal is granted, the interim president of the financially troubled institution told students in a letter obtained by The Boston Globe.

Interim president Jeff Mason said in the letter sent Monday that the decision made by the New England Commission of Higher Education was “not the outcome we expected and, frankly, we are heartbroken.”

The accreditor cited a yearly operating deficit of more than $500,000 above projections, as well as enrollment declines and a lack of final plans to wind down any programs, as reasons for the decision, the Globe reported. The accrediting commission made the decision on Jan. 12 after a November visit to the campus.

Bay State's accreditation is set to be withdrawn Aug. 31 and will mean that the college cannot disburse federal financial aid funds.

Bay State received approval to award associate degrees in 1975 and baccalaureate degrees in 2004. The college also has a campus in Taunton, Mass., and last year announced on its LinkedIn profile a partnership with Taunton High School to enroll Taunton students in a nursing associate degree program.

But over all, academic programs had been on the chopping block, with Mason announcing cuts in December. The college enrolled 346 students in fall 2021, according to the most recent federal data available, and employed seven full-time and 85 part-time faculty at the time.

U.S. senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said in a Twitter post Monday that she and U.S. representative Ayanna Pressley, also from Massachusetts, had called for scrutiny of the college given its “troubling history of fraud and mismanagement.” Warren added that she was “glad they’re holding the college accountable.”

January 18, 2023

Three colleges are asking a federal judge to delay a settlement in a class action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education that argued the agency ignored borrower defense to repayment claims.

The colleges—Lincoln Educational Services Corporation, Everglades College Inc. and American National University—said last week that they would appeal the settlement, which canceled $6 billion in student loans for about 200,000 borrowers who attended one of 153 institutions, including those who are appealing. Most of the institutions on the department’s list, known as Exhibit C, are for-profit colleges or universities.

The colleges appealing aren’t a named party in the lawsuit, but they got involved with the litigation as intervenors, which allows them to object to the settlement. They are appealing to U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

“Intervenors do not wish to delay a legitimate settlement of this case or the granting of meritorious [borrower defense] claims, but they cannot accept an illegal settlement that unfairly harms their reputations and prejudices their rights, as this settlement does,” the colleges’ motion to stay pending appeal states.

The settlement was reached last summer, and a federal judge gave final approval to the agreement in November.

Lawyers for the three institutions argued in the motion to stay pending appeal that the court lacked the jurisdiction to approve the settlement, that Education Secretary Miguel Cardona doesn’t have the authority to discharge debts, that the settlement violates the due process rights of the colleges and that the intervenors will suffer irreparable harm without a stay.

“Intervenors are experiencing irreparable harm by being branded with the Exhibit C scarlet letter, and that harm will intensify after the settlement’s effective date,” the motion says. “The effective date triggers a sequence of events that includes providing notice to class members, granting BD claims en masse regardless of merit, discharging debts, and paying refunds.”

Eileen Connor, president of the Project on Predatory Student Lending, which initially filed the lawsuit, said in a statement that the court’s decision to approve the settlement was “clear and unequivocal.”

“This appeal demonstrates just how desperate these schools are to deny justice for borrowers, and we will not stop fighting until students get the relief they deserve,” Connor said in the statement.

January 18, 2023

Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically Black university, and Ochsner Health, a health-care system in the state, announced plans to jointly establish a new medical school. The goal is to help diversify the medical workforce in Louisiana and nationwide.

“Representation among medical practitioners is critical for our communities, because representation means greater quality of care, improved access, and greater patient trust in the health providers and health-care system for the many who were historically marginalized and still are,” Xavier University president Reynold Verret said at a press conference Tuesday.

The new medical school will use facilities and employ personnel from both institutions, according to a joint press release. Ochsner and Xavier also plan to craft the curriculum together and will each appoint half of the members of the medical school’s new Board of Directors.

This isn’t the first time Xavier and Ochsner have collaborated on initiatives related to health equity. A partnership between the two institutions began in the 1980s to open more clinical training sites to Xavier pharmacy school students. During the pandemic, they also partnered to create two new graduate programs in health sciences, as well as a research center dedicated to addressing health inequities in Louisiana, called the Ochsner Health and Xavier University Institute for Health Equity and Research.

“Our relationship with Xavier has already made a difference in our efforts to make more academic, economic and professional opportunities here in Louisiana,” Andy Wisdom, chairman of the board for Ochsner Health, said at the press conference. “Creating new jobs and training new physicians is critical, but just as important is the need to build a workforce that reflects the values and diversity of the amazing patients and community that we serve.”

Xavier, which announced its intention to create a medical school last year, would join fewer than a handful of HBCUs with medical schools nationwide.

January 18, 2023

A $75 million donation to the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota will help fund the construction of a new multiuse arena, the university announced Tuesday, calling it “the single largest monetary gift ever given to a Minnesota university.”

The gift comes from long-standing benefactors Lee and Penny Anderson, whom St. Thomas credits for aiding its transformation from a small Catholic liberal arts college into the state’s largest private institution.

The gift is designed to kick off fundraising efforts for the venue—projected to cost about $175 million—which will house the men’s and women’s hockey and basketball teams, as well as accommodate big campus events such as commencement. St. Thomas athletics recently shifted from NCAA Division III competition to Division I, MPR News reported.

“This is about more than just hockey and basketball games—this is a gift that will be transformative for our entire St. Paul campus, enhance the experience of our students, and raise visibility for the university as a whole,” President Rob Vischer said in the news release. “It also creates a new community and economic asset for the Twin Cities, the state of Minnesota, and the region.”

St. Thomas aims to break ground on the new arena in 2024, with a planned opening in fall 2025.

January 18, 2023

As student mental health continues to worsen, college and university leaders seems to be increasing their focus—and spending—on mental health services, according to the results of a new survey from the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, which represents student affairs professionals, and Uwill, a teletherapy platform aimed at college students.

Out of the 131 NASPA members who responded to the survey, 72 percent reported that the mental health of students, faculty and staff at their institution had worsened over the past year. (By contrast, 11 percent said it had improved, and 17 percent said it stayed the same.) But the majority of respondents also said that their institution was increasing efforts to address mental health; 77 percent reported that their campus had boosted its financial commitment to mental health services in the past year, and 71 percent said that more mental health resources became available to students over the past year.

Survey respondents largely believe their university’s leaders care about improving mental health on campus; 87 percent said their institution’s president or provost prioritizes mental health. When naming their institution’s greatest strength in addressing mental health, 28 percent cited support from senior leaders, 27 percent named students’ awareness of resources, 14 percent said their campus’s ability to meet demand, 13 percent cited funding for mental health services and 8 percent reported the size of the counseling center staff.

“What makes the findings of this research stand out is the focus on strengths of our systems. Mental health is too often looked at with only a lens of deficits, and now we have some examples of where campus efforts are strong to replicate and invest more in for successful services and better design,” said David M. Arnold, NASPA’s assistant vice president for health, safety and well-being initiatives, in the report.

Despite such efforts, very few respondents said their campus’s mental health needs are being met, with only 4 percent reporting that the “availability of mental health services for students is extremely strong.” Forty-three percent of respondents said that increased severity of psychological issues was the top mental health challenge, followed by inability to meet demand (20 percent), lack of funding (12 percent), current events and social issues (6 percent), students’ lack of awareness of resources (5 percent), and stigma around seeking mental health treatment (4 percent).

January 18, 2023

Today on the Academic Minute: Filip Viskupič, assistant professor of political science at South Dakota State University, discusses how politics can drive vaccine hesitancy, even for nurses and children. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

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