Higher Education Quick Takes

Quick Takes

April 28, 2017

West Virginia State University announced Thursday that it is suing the Dow Chemical Company for allegedly polluting the groundwater under the university's campus. The suit says people on the campus face no danger but Dow should be responsible for cleaning up the area. A statement from Anthony L. Jenkins, president of the historically black institution, said, “Dow must restore our campus to the condition it was in before this contamination and help us address the harm this will do to our image locally and nationally. Dow also must compensate us for the loss of use of our property. We are reluctant to resort to litigation, but Dow has left us no choice.”

Dow told NPR that it was unaware of a suit being filed and had no comment on the statement from the university.

April 28, 2017

Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin and North Carolina are circulating bills that would require state universities to punish students who disrupt campus speech and remain neutral on political and social issues. Both are based on model legislation from the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank.

In North Carolina, House Bill 527 mandates that public universities “ensure the fullest degree of intellectual freedom and free expression,” according to The News & Observer. Institutions would have to teach students about free speech during freshman orientation and punish those who disrupt or otherwise interfere with invited speakers and others’ free speech rights. The bill, which passed the state House, 88 to 32, this week, would also require the University of North Carolina Board of Governors to establish a Committee on Free Expression to report annually on university barriers to free speech and how it maintains “a posture of administrative and institutional neutrality with regard to political or social issues,” The News & Observer reported. In response, some legislators have wondered whether the bill will bar scientists from talking about such things as climate change.

The Wisconsin bill’s authors described it in a memo to fellow lawmakers this week as "Republicans' promise to protect the freedom of expression on college campuses in order to encourage the broadening of thought and growth of ideas," according to the Wisconsin State-Journal. Under the Campus Free Speech Act, the University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents would be required to develop a free expression policy stating that universities' "primary function … is the discovery, improvement, transmission and dissemination of knowledge," and that it is not the role of an institution "to shield individuals from speech protected by the First Amendment," the State-Journal reported. The board also would have to develop rules for disciplinary hearings and sanctions for anyone affiliated with a state university who "interferes with the free expression of others." Any student found to have violated the policy twice would be subject to a suspension of at least one semester, up to expulsion.

A spokesperson for the Madison campus said that it shares lawmakers' goal of ensuring free expression, but that it already has policies in place for dealing with misconduct. So mandating certain sanctions would take power away from campus committees to administer appropriate punishments, the spokesperson, John Lucas, said.

The Goldwater model legislation was co-written by Stanley Kurtz, who has written frequently about campus speech debates for the National Review. “As both a deeply held commitment and a living tradition, freedom of speech is dying on our college campuses and is increasingly imperiled in society at large,” it says. “Nowhere is the need for open debate more important than on America’s college campuses.” Among other things, it says that “any student who has twice been found guilty of infringing the expressive rights of others will be suspended for a minimum of one year, or expelled.”

The model says that it’s inspired in part by the University of Chicago’s 2015 Stone Report on free speech, which articulates the institution's commitment to uninhibited debate. Chicago also recently released a report recommending punishments for those who disrupt campus speech, though it says that sanctions should be developed by a campus committee on a case-by-case basis.

April 28, 2017

Numerous politicians and others in New York City are criticizing the City University of New York because the commencement speaker for its School of Public Health is Linda Sarsour, co-organizer of the National Women’s March and former executive director of the Arab American Association of New York. Some are noting Sarsour's criticism of Israel and Zionism, while her defenders are noting that she was among the Muslim leaders who organized efforts to help repair a Jewish cemetery that was vandalized this year in St. Louis. Headlines on conservative websites have charged that she is an advocate for "Sharia law," apparently in reference to her own religious observance and not in relation to any views on public policy.

On Thursday, CUNY Chancellor James B. Milliken issued a statement indicating that he would not intervene in the public health school's choice of speaker.

"The decision to invite Ms. Sarsour was made by the School of Public Health," he wrote. "The commencement speakers are selected at the college level … CUNY's administration, its Board of Trustees and political leaders are being asked to overrule the college and cancel Ms. Sarsour's speech because critics object to things she has reportedly said or written. While one might disagree with the School of Public Health's decision to invite Ms. Sarsour to speak at commencement, that difference of opinion provides no basis for action now. Taking action because critics object to the content of speech would conflict with the First Amendment and the principles of academic freedom."

April 28, 2017

Union College is investigating a lewd “scavenger hunt” started by a women’s athletics team that challenged participants to smoke marijuana with faculty, drink urine and have public sex on the campus ice rink.

Officials at the private New York college were alerted to a Google document that was widely circulated around campus and detailed various inappropriate and sometimes sexual acts, each with an assigned point value, according to news reports.

Participants who drew male genitalia on their face and let it remain there for a day would earn 100 points. Vomiting on someone or eating a marijuana-infused brownie also netted 100 points. Activities with higher point values were often sexual. Smoking marijuana with a professor would win 1,000 points; drinking a teammate's urine, 400 points, and sex on the Frank L. Messa Rink at Achilles Center, 200 points.

A college spokesman told the Times Union that the institution didn’t believe anyone participated in the hunt -- what administrators called a bucket list. The college has declined to identify the team responsible for the event. Officials began investigating after three athletes reported it to the athletic department.

Dean of Students Stephen Leavitt and Director of Athletics Jim McLaughlin sent an email to the campus Wednesday, saying, “We were disappointed to learn that a document outlining a 'bucket list' of activities to be engaged in for sport has been shared among members of the campus community. Many of the items on the list, which allegedly originated with one of the women's athletic teams, are described in a manner that is vulgar and offensive. Union is committed to maintaining an environment free of harassment of all kinds, and an investigation is underway in accordance with college protocol, and upon completion, the administration will promptly pursue appropriate action. We will continue to provide educational and training programs for our students and staff in an effort to ensure that Union is an inclusive community free from harassment and intimidation, characterized by mutual respect and concern for the well-being of others."

April 28, 2017

Today on the Academic Minute, Matthew Johnson, assistant professor in the department of agricultural, life and environmental sciences at the University of Alberta, looks into where to find support during a rough period. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

April 27, 2017

In an unprecedented move, a public research university, Indiana's Purdue University, is buying Kaplan University, a large for-profit chain with a mostly online footprint.

The deal will lead to the creation of a new nonprofit institution, which under some as yet undetermined form of Purdue's name will offer credentials ranging from certificates to doctoral degrees, online and at 15 campus locations.

Kaplan currently enrolls 32,000 students and employs 3,000 faculty members and other staff. All will transition to the new Purdue subsidiary. Kaplan's parent company, Graham Holdings, is publicly traded and, until a few years ago, was the owner of The Washington Post.

Purdue has in recent years won fans and faced some controversy for entrepreneurial moves led by its president, former Republican governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels Jr. The university said the former Kaplan University would become a nonprofit called New University (the name Purdue is using for now), which will operate as a wholly owned subsidiary of the public university. The remaining Kaplan Inc., which already sells a range of mostly technology related services to nonprofit colleges, will continue to provide nonacademic support to the new nonprofit under an agreement with a 30-year term, with a buyout option after six.

Terms for the deal include only a "nominal" up-front payment, according to a corporate filing. "Kaplan is not entitled to receive any reimbursement of costs incurred in providing support functions, or any fee, unless and until New University has first covered all of its operating costs," the filing said.

Like most large for-profits, Kaplan's holding company has in recent years struggled with declining enrollments and unflattering attention from federal and state regulators. For example, Kaplan Higher Education in 2015 paid $1.3 million to settle a federal whistle-blower's allegations that the company employed unqualified instructors. Yet Kaplan University, which is separate from the former Kaplan Higher Education campus involved in that lawsuit, still has a large infrastructure that will allow Purdue to immediately be a major player in online education. Purdue will join several nonprofit institutions that are increasingly dominating online education, including Arizona State, Liberty, Southern New Hampshire and Western Governors Universities.

“None of us knows how fast or in what direction online higher education will evolve, but we know its role will grow, and we intend that Purdue be positioned to be a leader as that happens,” Daniels said in a written statement. “A careful analysis made it clear that we are very ill equipped to build the necessary capabilities ourselves, and that the smart course would be to acquire them if we could. We were able to find exactly what we were looking for. Today’s agreement moves us from a standing start to a leading position.”

The Kaplan news follows several dramatic changes for large, publicly traded for-profits, including the collapse of the controversial ITT Technical Institute and Corinthian Colleges, the sale of the University of Phoenix to private investors, and the so-far unsuccessful attempt by Grand Canyon University to go nonprofit, with the company saying it wants to avoid the "stigma" for-profits face.

Likewise, Education Management Corporation, a major for-profit chain, last month sold to the Dream Center Foundation, a religious missionary group, that plans to run the former EDMC as a secular, nonprofit institution. And a large chunk of the remains of Corinthian was purchased less than three years ago by ECMC Group, a student loan guarantee agency, that created the Zenith Education Group as a new nonprofit career college chain.

April 27, 2017

Niagara County Community College President James Klyczek resigned just hours before the college's Board of Trustees held a meeting Wednesday to decide whether or not to fire him after he allegedly called a sexual assault victim "stupid," according to The Buffalo News.

Audio of Klyczek's remarks was leaked to a local news affiliate in Buffalo; the college president can be heard commenting about one woman who reported an assault near the campus library. In the audio clip, Klyczek says, "What is she, stupid? I mean, no, seriously. This just aggravates me. Make us the guilty party because you're too stupid to follow your instinct …. Her daughter should be worried, because if she's got her mother's genes, she's dumber than a doorknob."

Two other college administrators also allegedly made disparaging remarks about sexual assault victims.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had also called for an investigation into NCCC's response to sexual assault crimes and whether the college sent adequate notifications to members of the college community. NCCC is investigating two recent reports of sexual assault.

Klyczek, who became acting president in 2002, contacted board trustees Wednesday afternoon to announce that he was retiring. Niagara trustees were asked earlier this year by NCCC's Faculty Senate to remove Klyczek after a news investigation discovered bid rigging at the college for the construction of a culinary institute.

Several trustees told Buffalo media that Klyczek certainly would have been fired at the Wednesday meeting.

April 27, 2017

Two Christian colleges are facing criticism from some students and faculty members over policy changes that the colleges say are consistent with their faith and mission, but that others see as hurting academic values.

  • Cedarville University is now requiring faculty members to apply the New Testament verse Philippians 4:8, on the importance of purity, Christianity Today reported. The impact is that faculty member may no longer teach R-rated films, even something like Schindler's List, and students may no longer perform plays that have any swear words.
  • Montreat College is requiring all faculty members to sign a "covenant," which requires, among other things, "chastity among the unmarried and the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman," WLOS News reported. While the college says this just clarifies existing policy, some faculty members may leave rather than sign the pledge.
April 27, 2017

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau this week announced that its supervisory work has uncovered that some student loan servicers are violating the law by failing to provide struggling borrowers with legal protections.

The federal watchdog in January sued Navient, the largest student loan servicer, for allegedly creating obstacles for borrowers. In a new report, the CFPB said one or more servicers routinely acted on flawed information about borrowers and also failed to reverse wrongly imposed charges.

In addition, the agency said it has seen a recent increase in consumer complaints about student loans, with 3,284 complaints for the first three months of this, up from 773 during the same period last year. However, the agency said some of the increase is due to its move to begin accepting complaints about federal loan servicing in late February of last year -- meaning there was less time for consumers to file complaints during the first quarter of 2016. The CFPB also said its high-profile action on Navient could be a factor.

April 27, 2017

More than 130 Democratic lawmakers called on Education Secretary Betsy DeVos Wednesday to reinstate consumer protections for student borrowers in federal contracts with loan servicers.

DeVos earlier this month rescinded guidance issued last year by then Secretary John B. King Jr. directing the Office of Federal Student Aid to consider servicers' past performance in the awarding of contracts. In the same decision, she withdrew separate guidance issued by former Under Secretary Ted Mitchell laying out a comprehensive set of servicing standards based on guidelines developed in collaboration with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Department of Treasury. The guidance from Mitchell also spelled out the requirements for an ambitious web portal the department had planned to build for all borrowers to use regardless of their servicers.

The department has yet to release an alternative set of guidelines for the next round of contracts for loan servicers, and it's unclear if it will follow through with any of the recommendations from previous guidance, including the web portal.

Democrats, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Washington Senator Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, said DeVos's decision to rescind the previous guidance raised questions about how the department will hold servicers accountable and protect the rights of borrowers.

“Your decision to rescind these memos -- including the guidance making servicers’ past performance and record of compliance with the law the most important non-cost factor in the evaluation -- will put millions of borrowers and taxpayers at risk,” the Democratic lawmakers wrote. “Without accounting for past performance, federal contracts will be open to bidders that have previously violated state or federal consumer protection laws, mistreated members of our military and consistently ignored the needs of their borrowers.”

Before the letter from congressional Democrats, 20 state attorneys general weighed in to express their "profound concern" over the department's revocation of the guidance. That letter cited investigations and enforcement actions by state AGs' offices targeting servicers, including Navient, for widespread abuses.

"The guidance revoked by the department was expressly designed to protect borrowers and correct pervasive student loan servicing failures that harm student loan borrowers and their families," the letter said. "By revoking these critical protections, the department has abdicated its responsibility to student loan borrowers."

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