Higher Education Quick Takes

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - 3:00am

The blogosophere was abuzz Monday with a post at a blog at the University of Pennsylvania about how some political science students were sitting in class for 15 minutes before receiving an e-mail telling them that the course had been canceled over the summer because the professor, Henry Teune, had died. The incident may be a good illustration of the value of updating Web pages. The political science department's home page prominently features a notice about a memorial service for Teune. But he remains on the faculty list, and the course list for the fall lists him for two courses. He died in April.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - 3:00am

Since 2005, Moody's Investors Service has affirmed the vast majority of existing ratings of postsecondary institutions, but the upgrades and downgrades the agency has made have occurred for consistent reasons, according to a new report released by Moody’s.

The top factors driving credit upgrades include (1) consistently strong operating performance, including balanced budgets or surpluses, (2) improvement in market position and brand identity, (3) growth of wealth in balance sheets, particularly due to fund raising, (4) improvements in liquidity and reduction of debt risks, and (5) diversity of revenue and strength across business lines.

In the wake of the 2008 economic downturn, the liquidity of institutional assets became a major concern for colleges and universities. As a result, many institutions started keeping larger pools of unrestricted assets on their balance sheets. That concern is reflected in the report, with high debt and insufficient liquidity being the top factor for downgrades. The other factors were poor operating performance and cash flow; a weak market position and poorly defined market niche; a weakening of the balance sheet, often marked by a significant increase in debt; and major events such as litigation, excessive management change, or revoked accreditation.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - 3:00am

WASHINGTON -- Two White House officials told a group of leaders of historically black colleges and universities gathered here for a conference that the sector has "friends in the White House," but that the institutions need to do more work to meet President Obama's goal for the country to have the world's highest proportion of degree-holders by 2020. The White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which organized the conference, has pushed the colleges to do more to retain and graduate students, including by creating a new website that specifies how many additional students colleges will have to graduate each year to meet the president's goal.

In two speeches at the conference's opening session, Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president, and John Silvanus Wilson Jr., director of the initiative, each recognized some colleges for attracting grants, better retaining students or incorporating technology in the classroom. But the sector needs to make a "collective and individual commitment to step up and work even harder, just as we ask our students to do every single day," Jarrett said.

Wilson highlighted the department's work to increase the endowments and facilities at historically black colleges, as well as their profile. But improving alumni giving is crucial, he said. "We don't want to criticize," he said. "We want to help."

Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - 3:00am

Academics were among the fortunate few to receive calls Monday from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation naming them as new MacArthur Fellows. The program (commonly called the "genius awards" even if the foundation doesn't use that term) provides $500,000 in no-strings-attached support over the next five years. The academics are:

  • Roland Fryer, Robert M. Beren Professor of Economics at Harvard University.
  • Elodie Ghedin, assistant professor of computational and systems biology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
  • Markus Greiner, associate professor of physics at Harvard University.
  • Kevin Guskiewicz, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • Tiya Miles, professor of history at the University of Michigan.
  • Matthew Nock, professor of psychology at Harvard University.
  • Sarah Otto, professor of zoology at the University of British Columbia.
  • Shwetak Patel, assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington,
  • Kay Ryan, chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.
  • Melanie Sanford, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Chemistry at the University of Michigan.
  • William Seeley, associate professor of neurology at the University of California at San Francisco.
  • Jacob Soll, professor of history at Rutgers University at Camden.
  • Yukiko Yamashito, assistant professor of cell & developmental biology, University of Michigan Medical School.
Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - 3:00am

In today’s Academic Minute, Jill VanTongeren of Yale University explains how super volcanoes continue to forge one of the Earth’s most valuable metals. Find out more about the Academic Minute here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - 3:00am

The boards of regents at the Universities of Texas and Oklahoma on Monday afternoon gave their presidents the O.K. to leave the Big 12 Conference, paving the way for another major (though not unexpected) shakeup during what has already been an eventful week in college athletics. On Sunday, the University of Pittsburgh and Syracuse University came nearly out of nowhere in announcing they would leave the Big East Conference to join the Atlantic Coast Conference, triggering an online explosion of speculation about the fate of the Big East. While further conference realignment was anticipated after Texas A&M University received approval from its governing board and announced last month that it would leave the Big 12 Conference for the Southeastern Conference, Sunday’s news seemed a shock to many.

Texas and Oklahoma are expected to seek membership in the Pacific-12 Conference, part of a general movement of Football Bowl Subdivision colleges away from regional leagues and toward four, 16-team “superconferences.” The athletics futures of the universities that have not made a move this far are unclear, and officials at several of the institutions said that their presidents were involved in intense discussions with their peers. Many speculated Monday that the Big East and Big 12 leagues could implode, combine, or dissolve completely. Reports surfaced Monday that the University of Connecticut and Rutgers University, two of the remaining colleges in the Big East, were aggressively exploring their options.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - 3:00am

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill acknowledged in a report to the National Collegiate Athletic Association on Monday that two former employees had given improper academic help to football players, and said it would impose several penalties on its athletics program as punishment for that and other violations. The university made public a redacted version of its response to a notice in which the NCAA alleged a series of violations by the Tar Heel sports program. It responds point by point to the charges made by the NCAA, which include improper payments to football players and other breaches, and states that North Carolina will cut scholarships and vacate 16 football victories from 2008 and 2009, but stops short of tougher penalties.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - 3:00am

The Boston Globe today explores what The Harvard Crimson has called U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren's "Harvard Problem." The issue is that being a Harvard professor may impress academics, but Republicans hope to use the Cambridge connection to suggest that she is out of touch with voters. Last month the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s communications director called Warren “someone who has spent many years ensconced in the hallways of Harvard.’’ And a Twitter account linked to an adviser to Senator Scott Brown, whom she is challenging, called her a “typical Harvard elitist." If you doubt that such attacks can be effective, ask the academic who thought he could become prime minister of Canada.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - 3:00am

Cornell University and New York University were the top education employers in this year's analysis of the best places to work for people who adopt. The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption examines policies of large workplaces for the annual ratings. Both Cornell and NYU provide their employees with up to $6,000 per adoption and six weeks of paid leave.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - 3:00am

The law school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has posted correct data about the class of 2014, replacing inflated data that were online previously. The university continues to investigate how the incorrect data were placed there. While the data had not yet been reported to the American Bar Association when the errors were discovered, they were visible to prospective applicants. And had the data not been corrected, they likely would have boosted the law school's rankings in various systems that use ABA data. The accurate data, which the university had independently verified, said that the class had a median score of 163 on the Law School Admission Test and a grade-point average of 3.7. The earlier data had the LSAT median at 168, and the G.P.A. as 3.8.


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