Higher Education Quick Takes

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Friday, May 13, 2016 - 3:00am

A regional National Labor Relations Board judge this week dismissed a petition from full-time faculty members at Marywood University to form a union. Using a framework for assessing the merit of such bids laid out in a 2013 decision regarding Pacific Lutheran University, the board officer found that the Marywood professors did not perform specific religious roles that would exempt them from NLRB oversight, as the Roman Catholic university had argued. But the judge did find that the instructors’ jobs were sufficiently managerial in nature to preclude them.

“At most, the documents and testimony introduced by the employer suggest that faculty members are generally expected to support the university’s mission and core values, much of which is expressed largely in nonreligious terms, including respect, empowerment, service and excellence,” Harold A. Maier, a Philadelphia-based NLRB officer, wrote in his decision regarding the religious exemption question. “More critically, [Marywood] did not produce evidence suggesting that faculty have a specific role in promoting its religious mission and values.”

Yet Marywood’s full-time faculty “exercises effective control” over some aspects of university operations, Maier wrote. “The faculty has extensive control over academic programs and a lesser, but still meaningful role in enrollment management and personnel policy and decisions.” And the NLRB has “never required that total faculty control is a prerequisite to finding managerial status.”

Maier’s conclusions are similar to those reached by a separate NLRB office regarding a union bid by full-time faculty members at Carroll College, in January. The two decisions taken together suggest a continued trend against full-time faculty unions at private institutions, even though some onlookers said the Pacific Lutheran decision may have opened doors to them.

Juneann Greco, Marywood spokeswoman, said via email that the decision “provides positive guidance going forward, encouraging our faculty, administration and staff to continue to work together, guided by our Marywood values, in the best interest of our students.” A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which is part of the National Education Association and with which the proposed union is affiliated, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Friday, May 13, 2016 - 3:00am

University of Missouri at Columbia graduate employees are suing the university system’s Board of Curators for union recognition, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Graduate assistants voted last month 668-127 to form a union affiliated with the National Education Association. But Hank Foley, interim campus chancellor, reportedly called the vote a “straw poll more than an official tally,” and said that formal union recognition and students' employee status was a matter to be settled by the courts.

The lawsuit asserts that graduate assistants are public employees, and that such workers “have a constitutional right to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.” Christian Basi, a spokesperson for the Columbia campus, didn’t comment on the legal issue but told the Post-Dispatch that graduate employees are “an integral part” of the university, and that administrators have “continued to work collaboratively with graduate students to address many of their ongoing concerns.”

The university’s sudden -- and almost as suddenly revoked -- announcement last year that it was cutting health insurance subsidies for graduate students built on-campus momentum for a union. Emails recently obtained via open records requests by the Missourian, Columbia’s student newspaper, show how administrators scrambled days before students arrived on campus last summer to understand whether and how new federal guidance on the Affordable Care Act conflicted with health insurance subsidies for graduate student employees.

Leona Rubin, associate vice chancellor for graduate studies, proposed a series of options for dealing with the problem in one email, including, “We can just eliminate the subsidy program, save $4.5 million, and have everyone hate us (more). Legally we can do that since providing the subsidy is breaking federal law and we don’t need to adhere to our offer letters.” She added, “We need to move pretty quick on this as students are arriving and some may be enrolling in the insurance thinking it will be 100 percent paid. Also, our currently enrolled students with health care will lose it in 15 days.”

Friday, May 13, 2016 - 3:00am

Moody's, the credit ratings agency, this week said it changed its financial outlook to negative for three of the seven public universities in Kansas. This year the state's budget will strip $17.7 million from public higher education, which represents about 3 percent of the universities' total state support. State government is proposing a further cut of 3 percent next year.

Universities in Kansas are relatively reliant on state funding, Moody's said, which accounts for between 20 and 35 percent of their revenue. Moody's gave the negative outlook to Kansas State University, Wichita State University and Pittsburg State University. The flagship University of Kansas already had that designation.

"The proposed funding reductions by themselves are manageable with continued careful expense containment," Moody's said in its report. "However, declining numbers of in-state high school students and aggressive regional competition are also applying pressure on tuition revenue, the largest source of revenue for all Kansas public universities."

Friday, May 13, 2016 - 3:00am

For years, a feline known as Susu the Cat has roamed the student union building at Britain's Southampton University. Students have now voted Susu their honorary president. Websites and Twitter feeds endorsed her candidacy, as did The Wessex Scene, the student newspaper, noting that Susu is "the perfect example of a student too -- naps, snacks and wanting affection."

Friday, May 13, 2016 - 3:00am

Today on the Academic Minute, Jeff Brecht, Research Foundation Professor in the Horticultural Sciences Department at the University of Florida, examines how getting over our fascination with perfect-looking food could help us save a bundle at the grocery store.

Thursday, May 12, 2016 - 3:00am

The interest rates on federal student loans will fall by about half a percentage point in the 2016-17 academic year, to the lowest point in history, based on the results of the Treasury Department's auction on 10-year notes. The rate on federal undergraduate loans will drop to 3.76 percent from the current 4.29 percent, and the rate for graduate Stafford loans will fall to 5.31 percent and for Grad PLUS and Parent PLUS loans to 6.31 percent.

The interest rates on student loans used to be set by congressional action, but 2013 legislation linked the rates to market fluctuations.

Thursday, May 12, 2016 - 3:00am

The University System of Georgia Board of Regents adopted a new policy on Tuesday that will limit how much money from student fees and tuition can be used for athletic programs at the state's public colleges and universities. The cap won't affect the state's athletic powerhouses, the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech, as athletics subsidies at both institutions are well below the new policy's limit of 65 to 85 percent of a college's athletic budget. UGA relies on student funding for 2.5 percent of its athletic spending, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, while Georgia Tech relies on 7.2 percent. Six institutions in the state are over the new subsidy cap, including Georgia State University.

Thursday, May 12, 2016 - 4:27am

Students at Seattle University have occupied a dean's office and vowed to stay until their demands are met, The Seattle Times reported. The university says that it has met with and is willing to continue to meet with the students to discuss their demands, and to review the curriculum and other issues. The students have published a list of their demands, including a new curriculum that "decentralizes whiteness and has a critical focus on the evolution of systems of oppression such as racism, capitalism, colonialism, etc., highlighting the art, histories, theologies, political philosophies and socio-cultural transformation of Western and non-Western societies." The students also want the new curriculum to be taught by "prepared staff from marginalized backgrounds, especially professors of color and queer professors," and want all faculty members to be required to go through "training from an antiracist network in Seattle, such as the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond."

Thursday, May 12, 2016 - 3:00am

Latino students who attend highly selective colleges and universities graduate at significantly higher rates than their peers at other institutions, but just 12 percent of Latino students attend such colleges, according to a new report from Excelencia in Education. The report examines why students fare as they do at those institutions (hint: it has a lot to do with money) and recommends strategies colleges can adopt to improve the success of Latino students.

Thursday, May 12, 2016 - 3:00am

Pacific Union College students continue to protest the rumored possible termination of a tenured professor of psychology over his decision to invite an atheist and well-known critic of the Seventh-day Adventist church, with which the college is affiliated, to campus to speak. About 60 students marched across campus and several hundred attended a town hall about the matter last week, the St. Helena Star reported. Others have been active on social media over concerns that the professor, Aubyn Fulton, may be fired for asking Ryan Bell -- a former Seventh-day Adventist turned atheist who is critical of the church's position on such issues as gay rights -- to address a class he was teaching in the fall. The talk never happened, as Heather Knight, college president, canceled the event days prior, according to the Star. But Fulton wrote recently on his Facebook page that he would be fired at the end of the spring quarter for his role in the matter.

Fulton, who has previously clashed with administrators over comments about homosexuality, according to the Star, declined comment. Knight said the professor’s online comments had been “misleading,” and that she had not told him he’d be fired. She also said the college had set up a Academic Freedom Task Force to examine the college’s academic freedom policy. But she said that Fulton had praised Bell as “courageous” and “honest” in his Facebook post -- and that’s a problem.

“If you’re going to bring someone like that who’s repudiated church doctrine, who has publicly attacked the church and publicly attacked God, you wouldn’t want to seem like you’re making this person into a hero,” Knight said. Ideally, she added, faculty members would consult with colleagues or administrators before inviting controversial speakers to campus. There might have been an appropriate way for Bell to address students, she told the Star, but “there wasn’t enough time to figure it out. … We’re not saying students shouldn’t be exposed to these ideas.”

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