Higher Education Quick Takes

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011 - 4:33am

Canadian university leaders are defending their new statement on academic freedom, which has been criticized by faculty leaders for what they see as limits on the protections it provides for academics. Faculty leaders have said that the references in the statement to peer review suggest that ideas that have yet to capture a critical mass of support may not be covered (in the view of university leaders), potentially hurting those who challenge conventional wisdom in their disciplines. The Canadian Association of University Teachers recently released an open letter outlining concerns about the new statement, which it said would "undo many of the advances that have been achieved in the understanding of academic freedom over the past 100 years." Now the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, which prepared the academic freedom statement, has responded with a letter to the faculty group. The university letter states: "We have confidence in the peer review process and the standards of research and teaching in our academic disciplines. We do not share your concern that these processes and standards may not apply to 'ideas at the margin or ideas that are critical of the mainstream.' Our position is based on the rigor of inquiry, not the outcome."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011 - 3:00am

The federal government paid out $1 billion in improper Pell Grant payments in 2011, but the proportion of all payments that were erroneous fell to 2.7 percent -- below the government's target of 3.3 percent and the lowest level since at least 2005, the White House announced Tuesday. The Obama administration credits the drop to new measures that linked the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to Internal Revenue Service data, making it less likely that information about students' family income would be entered improperly. Improper payments in 2010 also totaled about $1 billion, but the rate that year was 3.1 percent because overall grant volume was lower.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011 - 3:00am

WASHINGTON -- A budget compromise for fiscal year 2012 expected to be approved later this week would increase funding for the National Science Foundation and other federal scientific research efforts. The Senate and House have agreed on a "mini-bus" bill with funding for five cabinet-level departments: Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, Housing and Urban Development, and Transportation, as well as for science and other related agencies. Their budget would increase NSF funding to $7 billion, $173 million more than in 2011 and more than was proposed by either the House or Senate appropriations subcommittees, although significantly less than the $907 million increase President Obama requested in February. 

NASA would face a budget cut of $648 million, mostly in space exploration, but funding for NASA's science programs would increase by $155 million. The National Institute for Standards and Technology would see a $33 million increase to $751 million -- also below the president's request. 

The package also includes a continuing resolution that would avert a government shutdown in December.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011 - 3:00am

The European University Association is today issuing a new "autonomy scorecard" that compares the autonomy given to university systems throughout Europe. The rankings are in four areas: organizational, financial, staffing and academic autonomy. Following are the countries where the higher education systems have the most and least autonomy.

Category 3 Most Autonomous (from top) 3 Least Autonomous (from bottom)
Organizational Britain, Denmark, Finland Luxembourg, Turkey, Greece
Financial Luxembourg, Estonia, Britain Cyprus, Hesse, Greece
Staffing Estonia, Britain, and three-way tie between Czech Republic, Sweden and Switzerland Greece, France and tie between Cyprus and Spain
Academic Ireland, Norway, Britain France, Greece, Lithuania


Tuesday, November 15, 2011 - 3:00am

In today’s Academic Minute, Alex Rehding of Harvard University explains that monuments made of music can be just as durable as those built of marble. Find out more about the Academic Minute here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011 - 3:00am

Santa Clara University announced Monday that a hacker had managed to improve the grades of 60 undergraduates, The San Jose Mercury News reported. The university has asked the Federal Bureau of Investigation to help track down exactly what happened. An inquiry into the hacking began when a former student came forward to say that a grade on her transcript was better than the one she thought she had earned. The grade changes varied from minor boosts to major ones, changing failing grades to As.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011 - 3:00am

Williams College canceled all classes and athletic activities Monday after an incident of apparent racial bias -- and the college's initial response to it -- agitated many students. The phrase “All Niggers Must Die” was found scrawled on a hallway wall in a campus dorm early Saturday morning, according to a statement released by Adam Falk, the college’s president.  An initial e-mail to the campus angered students who thought the message's wording was vague, said Colin Adams, a member of the college’s faculty steering committee and professor of mathematics. Students demanded the cancelation of classes to create time for reflection about the incident, said James Kolesar, assistant to the president for public affairs. He said a police investigation into the incident is continuing.

Students and faculty and staff members participated in a day’s worth of programming on issues of inequality and diversity.  The main event was held near midday, with about 1,000 students, faculty and staff members assembled for several speeches by administrators and student leaders. “As we together organize our individual, group, and college-wide responses, may that be with outrage at what has occurred and at what too many members of the campus community are continually burdened by, along with the resolute sense that in the end we will succeed in making this campus, nation, and world a place that is safe for all,” Falk wrote in his second statement to the campus Monday.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011 - 3:00am

The higher education system in Illinois, once a national model, has seen sharp declines in performance driven not only by funding problems but by governance changes and political corruption, several leading researchers said in the first installment of a multipart study examining state higher education policies. The report, "A Story of Decline: Performance and Policy in Illinois Higher Education," was produced by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's Institute for Research on Higher Education and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Future studies will examine Georgia, Maryland, Texas and Washington.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011 - 3:00am

A sorority has placed six members on probation for dressing in blackface to depict characters from "The Cosby Show" for a costume party, the Associated Press reported. The women have all met with a group of African-American student leaders to discuss the incident.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011 - 4:27am

The senior college commission of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges has approved a new set of policies aimed at giving the regional accreditor a greater role in assuring the academic quality of its members. Under the policies endorsed this month, WASC will begin external reviews of the retention and graduation rates of the colleges it accredits, and will post the action letters and team reports that result from its every-five-year reviews beginning next June. The agency will also require all institutions to show that their graduates have achieved institutionally defined "levels of proficiency" in written and oral communication, quantitative skills, critical thinking and information literacy, and to define the learning outcomes of each degree it offers.

The commission considered, but could not reach agreement on, a proposal that would have required each accredited institution to benchmark its outcomes in two of those five areas against other colleges. Discussion about that reform and others is continuing.


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