Higher Education Quick Takes

Quick Takes

February 28, 2014

A coalition of higher education associations on Thursday urged the Obama administration not to apply to colleges and universities its proposed rules on political activity by certain tax-exempt nonprofit organizations.

The Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service have been seeking public comments on their proposal to more clearly define what constitutes political campaign-related activity at “social welfare” nonprofits, which are organized under section 501(c)4 of the tax code. Those organizations are permitted to engage in some campaign activity, but government watchdogs say the blurred lines are allowing an influx of secret money into politics that has a corrupting effect.

In proposing new standards at those 501(c)4 organizations, the Treasury Department and IRS also asked for input on whether they should apply the same definition of political campaign activity to 501(c)3 organizations, which include most nonprofit colleges and universities. Colleges and universities, like all 501(c)3 nonprofits, are completely prohibited from engaging in any "political campaign intervention" as a condition of their tax-exempt status.

The IRS doesn't have hard and fast rules for what constitutes such political activity for colleges and universities. Rather, the agency takes a more subjective approach that weights the facts and circumstances of individual situations. But, if the IRS were to expand its new 501(c)4 standards to colleges and universities, it would “fundamentally damage the role that colleges and universities have played for hundreds of years in encouraging civic learning and democratic engagement,” the American Council on Education said in a letter Thursday. 

Colleges, for instance, would be prohibited from hosting presidential debates, or other speeches, forums or panels too close to an election. They would, in addition, face myriad restrictions in their public communications about election-related issues.

Steven M. Bloom, director of federal relations at the American Council on Education, said in an interview that although the administration was merely seeking input, not proposing changes, it is a “worrisome” issue for college leaders. “The IRS doesn't do this as an academic exercise,” he said. “They must be seriously contemplating what they view as problems.”

February 28, 2014

In today’s Academic Minute, Gabriel Rossman of the University of California Los Angeles reveals the economic risks faced by filmmakers seeking to win Academy Awards. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.


February 28, 2014

The University of Iowa is among many colleges and universities currently facing criticism over the way they respond to allegations of sexual assault on campus. On Thursday, President Sally Mason spoke at an open forum on the topic and spoke about her personal experience as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky in 1970, The Iowa City Press-Citizen reported. She said that a man in a trench coat grabbed her breast, and that she didn't know what to do, and felt unable to tell even her parents out of fear that they would insist she come home. “I never want a young woman on this campus ever in her life not to know where to go if something like that happens to them,” she said.

Mason has been facing personal criticism at Iowa over a quote in an interview with the student newspaper, The Daily Iowan, last week. In the interview, Mason said, “I’m not pleased that we have sexual assaults, obviously. The goal would be to end that, to never have another sexual assault. That’s probably not a realistic goal just given human nature, and that’s unfortunate, but the more we understand about it, the better we are at trying to handle it and help people get through these difficult situations.”

Critics -- some of whom formed a group called Not in My Nature -- have said that the quote suggests that sexual assaults are a normal part of human nature. Mason has issued an apology for the quote, writing: "Several members of our campus community have let me know that my remarks on sexual assault printed last week in The Daily Iowan were hurtful. I did not intend them to be, and I am sorry for the pain my words caused."

February 27, 2014

Chicago State University owes its former general counsel $2.5 million, a jury in Illinois found last week. The verdict – $480,000 in back pay and a $2 million punitive damage award – would go to James Crowley, who turned into a whistle-blower after a dispute with President Wayne Watson over disclosure of public records that would reveal when Watson started his job. According to The Chicago Tribune, Watson’s first day on the job was disputed because it would determine whether he was eligible for a pension from his time at another public college. 

Crowley said the president threatened him over disclosing too many documents, an allegation Crowley took to the state attorney general. Nearly four years to the day after Watson fired Crowley, the Cook County jury reached its verdict. Crowley's lawyer, Anthony Pinelli, said the judge could increase the value of the verdict by doubling the amount of back pay. The verdict also said Crowley should be reinstated as the university’s top lawyer. Watson is still president.

“Whether that's going to happen or what we're going to do about it, I haven't spoken to the other side about it," Pinelli said. Chicago State plans to appeal, the Tribune reported. 

Crowley had been working part time for a law firm, but he was laid off several months ago and is looking for work, Pinelli said. Chicago State is also dealing with recent allegations that its provost, Angela Henderson, plagiarized her Ph.D. dissertation. The university has also gone on the offensive against a faculty-run blog called Crony State Faculty Voice, which has been highly critical of Watson. The blog called the jury verdict in the Crowley case “the Watson Clown Show's latest ethical, fiscal and public relations disaster.”

February 27, 2014

A coalition of higher education, business and other groups seek to make the case for more federal investment in research and higher education with a four-minute video explaining the "innovation deficit." The groups hope to remind members of Congress (and those who influence them) about the important contributions that scientific and other research make to the knowledge economy -- and the economy at large.

February 27, 2014

In today’s Academic Minute, Elliot Berkman of the University of Oregon reveals the limits of brain training. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

February 27, 2014

The associations that represent allopathic and osteopathic medical schools announced Wednesday that they had agreed to a common system for accrediting U.S. providers of graduate medical education. The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, the American Osteopathic Association, and the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine said that under the arrangement, the osteopathic associations would become members of the graduate medical education group, and that the joint accrediting system would allow "graduates of allopathic and osteopathic medical schools to complete their residency and/or fellowship education in ACGME-accredited programs and demonstrate achievement of common milestones and competencies."


February 27, 2014

A new law has made Washington State the fifth state where students who lack the legal documentation to live permanently in the United States are eligible for state student aid, Reuters reported. Governor Jay Inslee, a Democrat, said that the law would help "thousands of bright, talented and very hard working students across the state of Washington."

February 27, 2014

A faculty committee has recommended that Harvard University adopt policies designating specific officials to authorize an email search and -- in most cases -- to inform anyone whose email is searched, The Boston Globe reported. The recommendation follows a controversy in 2012 in which many email accounts were secretly searched. Harvard has not had clear policies on the issue, the committee found. The panel said that there needs to be a "legitimate" or "important" reason for such searches. And that reason -- not an email account holder's status as a student or employee or as a certain kind of employee, such as tenured professor -- should dictate whether a search is performed.


February 27, 2014

Thirty-one current and former students at the University of California at Berkeley filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education Wednesday charging that the university has mishandled allegations of sexual assault, The Los Angeles Times reported. In May, nine students filed a complaint, and that has now been expanded. The complaint charges that, among other things, officials discouraged women from filing charges against their assailants, women were not informed of their rights and that campus judicial processes favored the accused. Berkeley's chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, on Tuesday announced the hiring of new employees to investigate sexual assault complaints and help victims. He also said survivors could be allowed to appeal decisions in internal sexual misconduct cases.


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