Essay on death of Kalief Browder, a student at Bronx Community College

Kalief Browder -- one of my college’s students -- died June 6, 2015.

He took his own life.

Sadly, he never recovered from the experience of being imprisoned without bail for three years beginning at the age of 16, at Rikers Island, a New York City jail. He awaited a trial that never was because the charges were eventually dropped. Released at age of 19 and deeply scarred emotionally, he came to Bronx Community College of the City University of New York with the intention of becoming a productive member of our society. Enrolled in Future Now, a program for previously incarcerated students, he obtained a high school equivalency diploma and started as a liberal arts major last fall. Kalief completed 11 credits. While he struggled at first, he was doing much better this spring, when he finished the semester with eight credits and term grade point average of 3.562.

He was 22 years of age when he died. For Kalief we represented hope. Our campus served as an intellectual oasis for this fragile mind; his prospects of a good life were becoming defined and real.

Bronx Community College is located in the 15th Congressional District. It currently holds the distinction of being the poorest congressional district in the United States. The correlation between poverty and crime is well-known. The majority of our students are from this district and this neighborhood. They are different and unique from the students at four-year institutions and those at many other community colleges nationwide. If BCC is an emblem of hope in the Bronx, Rikers, as another city-run operation, is an emblem of despair. As a society, we must find a way to help these young people rather than letting them rot in jail until they are so damaged that nothing we do can save them.

Our hearts are broken today for Kalief. He represented who we are as a college, a place where many people who are wounded by the vicissitudes of life eventually find their way. We do save lives. But Kalief’s death reminds us that we may not always be able to resolve the internal struggles that members of our community are facing. We never know what demons lurk within our students’ minds.

Last year, the World Health Organization reported that 800,000 people die as a result of suicide worldwide every year. Forty-one thousand of those suicides occurred in the United States, a number that WHO indicates may be low due to underreporting and misclassification. WHO also reports that there are indications that for each adult who dies of suicide, there are likely to be more than 20 others attempting suicide. It remains the second leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds. Suicides of college students get much attention in the media, but most of the articles are about those at residential, four-year colleges.

Community college students are vulnerable. Many come to us with emotional burdens created by difficult situations. Students who did not do well in high school come to the community college expecting to have a reprieve from the mistakes they made in high school. They believe that coming to a community college is a second chance at doing what they, their parents and perhaps even society expect of them.

Some come believing that they don’t belong but hope that, somehow, something great will happen to them. Suddenly, a light will turn on, and their lives will be changed forever. Others come understanding that they have the ability but that their study habits need to improve. Others come because people in their lives made them attend -- parents, family members or even a court order. Yet others come to save money so that they can afford to finish at their school of first choice. Many, usually adult students, come to be trained for a well-paying job after recognizing that their present lot in life is a dead end. Many students who themselves are children have children. Many are working one or two jobs and attempting to attend college on a full-time basis.

Some, like Kalief, were previously incarcerated. Others are undocumented and afraid. At Bronx Community College, just as is the case at other community colleges, we welcome all who are willing to work for a better life. They are real heroes in our present-day society, for in spite of all the problems they face, their grit, their determination, their willingness to make sacrifices so as to have a better life for themselves and their children drive them to succeed. The American Dream may be lost for some but it is alive and well for this population of students.

The current emphasis on outcomes rather than enrollments at the community colleges is yielding results. People are paying attention to providing effective academic and student support services for these students. The successes of programs such as CUNY’s ASAP, LaGuardia Community College’s learning communities, Queensborough Community College’s Academies and many others have created a flurry of attention on the type of pedagogy needed to move these students more effectively through the curriculum. And, little by little, we are winning the battle against ignorance. Graduation rates are inching up, retention rates are improving.

Concomitantly, when we accept students under our open admissions policy, we accept the responsibility to address their educational and emotional needs. If we are to improve our graduation rates, we must put in place effective programs that address the myriad of problems affecting our students. We must attend to the fragile minds of damaged students. We must turn the academic and student support services upside down. The traditional model works well for selective colleges but not for community colleges. We must spend time and treasure diagnosing students’ problems upon admission and we must create a “prescription” to address them as they progress through the curriculum. The term in loco parentis takes a different meaning at the community colleges.

Private philanthropy is answering the call. Kalief was part of Future Now, a program for previously incarcerated students that helped him get a high school diploma and provided peer mentoring, internships and individual tutoring. For 15 years, with the generous support of foundations and individuals, we have been helping students between the ages of 17 and 21. This program is a lifeline. But we need more. We must make the case for adequate support to help our students.

May Kalief rest in peace.

Eduardo J. Marti is interim president of Bronx Community College of the City University of New York.

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Kalief Browder

AAUP censures four institutions, calls out others

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Association's annual meeting on academic freedom issues features a debate on whether Steven Salaita's rights were violated and consensus that Wisconsin politicians are undermining their university system.

AAUP session discusses off-list reference checks

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Should faculty members be concerned if administrators check references who were not supplied by job candidates?

President and five trustees quit amid bitter unrest at Cooper Union

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The president and five trustees resign, saying their vision for the embattled college is substantially different than that of the rest of the board.

Essay criticizes pieces 'The New York Times' is publishing on higher education

The editorial pages of The New York Times seem to have become the destination of choice for people who want to say uninformed things about American higher education. Let me rephrase that slightly: They have become the destination of choice for people who want to say uninformed things that are designed to get readers angry at American higher education, which I presume is why The Times keeps them coming. In today’s America, anger sells.

Though this receptivity to misleading opinion pieces has been around at The Times for a while, it seems in recent months to be building to some sort of crescendo. On April 4 of this year, the paper published “The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much” by Paul Campos. According to Campos, the “real reason” boils down to generous government subsidies and bloated administrations. These are longstanding talking points that are unsubstantiated by any evidence. Believe it or not, there are people who actually study this stuff, and there is evidence compiled by economists and others that explains the rise in college costs. None of that is in Campos’s opinion piece, and none of it confirms his conclusions. (I would recommend Why Does College Cost So Much? by Robert Archibald and David Feldman to those who want a thoughtful answer to the question.)

On May 20 the paper published “Platinum Pay in Ivory Towers” by Frank Bruni. I am a fan of Bruni’s work, but he seems to have lost some of his usual good judgment when it comes to the subject of colleges and universities. This particular piece expressed ire at the $8.5 million payout by Yale University to its recently retired president, Richard Levin.

It is fair to find such a sum outrageous. It is less fair to move to Bruni’s conclusion that “the lofty pay of college presidents is part of higher education’s increasingly corporate bent, of the blurred lines between the campus and the marketplace.” Using the example of how a university with many billions of dollars chooses to spend several million as the basis of generalizations about American higher education is like using Warren Buffett as an example of the typical American investor. The latest data from the College and University Association for Human Resources show that the median salary for research university presidents is about $450,000, with most other sectors not coming close to that, and community college presidents having a median salary of $188,000. By comparison, a 2012 study showed the average salary of a partner in a large American law firm to be $681,000. There are far more law partners than college presidents in America.

The nadir of this trend was reached on June 6, with the publication of “Why I Defaulted on My Student Loans,” by the journalist Lee Siegel. Siegel is the author of four books and a contributor to publications including Harper’s, The New Republic and The New Yorker. I assume he makes a living. He is proud of having defaulted on his loans, which he took out, he says, in order to attend “a small private liberal arts college.” If his online biography is correct, Siegel went on to receive three degrees from Columbia University.

It is hard to know how properly to describe Siegel’s piece. One might begin with self-centered, condescending and poorly reasoned. He accepts no responsibility for having chosen a private college over a less expensive public option in the first place; he finds offensive the notion that he might have had to take a job that he found less than true to his “particular usefulness to society” -- which was to write smart things -- in order to pay off his debts. He finds the entire notion of repaying a debt for the receipt of a benefit a “social arrangement that is legal, but not moral.” He encourages others to follow his sterling example.

All this would be easy to dismiss as a colossal display of arrogance and irresponsibility were it not for the imprimatur of respectability bestowed by The Times. I understand the fact that the views expressed on an opinion page do not reflect those of the paper or its editors. But I also believe that those editors have a responsibility to act as, well, editors, and to publish pieces that meet a certain standard of thoughtfulness and stand at least within spitting distance of the facts. It saddens me that the newspaper that is ostensibly the gold standard of American journalism seems to be taking its lead from angry blogs.

I’m thinking of submitting an opinion piece to The Times entitled “College Causes Cancer.” I don’t have any facts to support the claim, but apparently that doesn’t matter, and the title is catchy as hell.

Brian Rosenberg is president of Macalester College.

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National poll finds overall dissatisfaction with college selection process while parents request more emphasis on job placement

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National poll gives low marks to the college selection process, with parents saying institutions aren't doing enough to place graduates in jobs and the value of degrees has dropped sharply over the past decade.

Survey of European universities finds end to boom in branch campuses

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Survey of European universities finds other approaches top their internationalization agendas.

Essay on the British election campaign and campaign promises about higher education

In a shocking result in the 2015 British elections, Prime Minister David Cameron won re-election and returned to Number 10 Downing Street with a slim yet outright majority in the House of Commons. An election that, due to the rise of traditionally minor nationalist parties just weeks earlier, was heralded as the end of the two-party system ended with a victory for one of the two major parties.

Unlike in so many elections, higher education policy positions were a topic of great debate this year, providing major and minor parties alike the opportunity to share their visions for the future of British higher education. The lessons of the 2015 British election not only provide a fantastic microcosm of the past five years of British politics, but also have great implications for the 2016 presidential race in the United States.

Among higher education policy issues in the United Kingdom in the past decade, perhaps no issue has gained more media attention than tuition (frequently called fees in Britain). Labour governments under Tony Blair introduced tuition and fees to the UK higher education system for the first time in 1998, and increased the £1,000 ($1,548) tuition cap to £3,000 ($4,647) in 2004. In 2009, it became clear that universities needed increased funding. John Browne, formerly the head of the energy company BP, chaired a commission that examined higher education and eventually advocated for no tuition caps and increasing the availability of student loans.

In 2010, public disapproval of the Labour government was high, and for those voters who didn’t approve of the Tories, either, the Liberal Democrats provided an alternative. Youth voters were drawn to the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and his pledge not to raise tuition, and voted for the party in droves. No party won a majority in Parliament, so the Liberal Democrats and Tories joined forces in a coalition government. As junior partners in the Conservative-led governing coalition, the Liberal Democrats tried to serve as a moderating force -- a goal that ultimately proved unsuccessful when they went back on their pledge and voted for a Tory proposal to increase the tuition cap to £9,000.

The Liberal Democrats paid dearly for not following through on their no tuition increases pledge. In a nationally televised appearance on a question and answer show, Clegg was asked by an audience member, “Your promise on student loans has destroyed your reputation -- why would we believe anything else you say?”

The tuition flip-flop had the same effect on Clegg that the “Read my lips: No new taxes” pledge had on President George H. W. Bush -- it provided ammunition for opponents of the Liberal Democrats, and cast doubt on Clegg’s trustworthiness. The raise of fees, seen as a Tory policy, also built upon the opposition narrative that Clegg and the Liberal Democrats weren’t doing enough to stave off the unpopular austerity measures the majority Conservative government wanted to enact. By election night, the Liberal Democrats’ image was so badly damaged that they were reduced to 8 seats from 57. Of those eight members of Parliament, four had broken party ranks and voted against the tuition increases.

Similarities in party platforms with regard to higher education also dramatically changed the outcome of the election, as differentiation in policies shed some spotlight on traditionally minor parties. The Labour and Conservative parties proposed very similar research funding and tech transfer policies. The Tories called for university enterprise zones that would connect university research with potential entrepreneurs and spin-off businesses in the mold of Silicon Valley or North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park. Labour proposed “knowledge clusters” much the same way -- areas where universities would build ties with industry.

The two parties also stated that they were committed to maintaining research funding, but provided few specifics as to how they would do so. The Liberal Democrats were the only major party to differ in these areas, actually calling for greater investment in research funding and changes to employment law that would allow university students from abroad the ability to stay in the U.K. after graduation to contribute to the knowledge economy of the country. Yet, because of the party’s history on switching positions on tuition, many felt the differing ideas were unattainable in a coalition government at best, and dishonest at worst.

Such similarities among the major parties wouldn’t normally make a major difference in an election outcome, but traditionally minor parties used the similarities to their advantage. The Scottish National Party argued that the Labour Party had lost sight of its socialist roots and become too much like the Conservative party. Any similar policies between the two main parties, especially in the wake of the Scottish independence referendum in which both parties worked together to defeat the SNP, played directly into the SNP’s narrative.

In the one area where Labour and the Tories disagreed -- tuition caps -- Scottish voters paid no attention. Labour’s proposed cap reduction from £9,000 to £6,000 fell on deaf ears north of Hadrian’s Wall, as the SNP had already provided free tuition and fees for Scottish students at Scottish universities through legislation at the regional level. When Scottish voters tried to determine which party had the best chance of success in breaking up the perceived Labour-Tory policy monopoly, they had to choose between the Liberal Democrats with their poor track record on tuition fees or the party that brought free higher education to Scotland.

On Election Day, the traditionally Labour- and Liberal Democrat-friendly Scots turned to the SNP, and the nationalist party won 56 of 59 seats in Scotland. In fact, a 20-year-old university student who campaigned on students’ issues and defeated a Labour Party leader became the youngest member of the House of Commons in over a century when she filled one of those 56 seats.

The Scots weren’t the only minor party to take advantage of higher education policy to build their own agenda. The pro-environment Green Party promised to erase all student debt and cap pay for the highest earners at large firms like universities at 10 times that of the lowest wage earner. Plaid Cymru, a Welsh nationalist party, dedicated to eventual independence for Wales, argued for a work visa program for foreign students similar to that of the Liberal Democrats to ensure the continued economic health of the Welsh aerospace and electronics industries.

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the far-right U.K. Independence Party used differentiation in its higher education platform to draw attention to its main political goal of leaving the European Union. UKIP, virulently opposed to E.U. membership and patently anti-immigration, proposed a tuition policy for students from outside of the U.K. that could only be achieved if the United Kingdom were to leave the E.U. Students from abroad, even those from fellow E.U. countries, would have to pay higher tuition fees than domestic students, a policy that is illegal under European Union law.

Higher education policies became a way for minor parties to differentiate themselves from the “business as usual” candidates, and some were quite successful in that effort.

The lessons of the 2015 U.K. election certainly apply to next year’s U.S. presidential election. While the rise of a Texas national party or complete implosion of the Democratic Party seems highly unlikely, presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle are likely to use their positions on higher education issues in ways that fit with the personal narrative they try to present. Governor Scott Walker has already channeled the Tory government with his proposed cuts to the University of Wisconsin. He cites this austerity measure as an example of his commitment to fiscal stability and a low-taxes government. Expect Marco Rubio to tout the bipartisan work he has done with Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden as an example of the ways in which he rises above traditional partisan politics -- not exactly the same as creating a third party, but not particularly different in its purpose, either.

Presidential candidates should look to the minority parties of the United Kingdom for guidance on how to energize voters. Rand Paul’s proposed elimination of the Department of Education will certainly energize his base the same way UKIP energizes theirs through discussion of tuition policies in a Britain free of the European Union. Bernie Sanders’s belief that higher education should be a right, and that higher education should be free, has more in common with the stated policy positions of the SNP in Scotland than the Democrats in the United States. Those positions, however, will invigorate many of the left-wing youth of the Democratic Party and could greatly increase turnout even if Senator Sanders isn’t on the ballot in November of 2016.

Finally, presidential candidates should also heed the lessons of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats. Going back on promises related to higher education could result in dramatic losses in the next election. While many voters won’t consider the state of their local university on election day, a high profile flip-flop on higher education could indicate a level of dishonesty to which no re-election-seeking politician would ever want to ascribe.

Christopher R. Marsicano is a Ph.D. student in leadership and policy studies with a focus in higher education policy at Vanderbilt University.

Image Caption: 
U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron

Essay on decision to become a provost

Terri E. Givens describes her decision, six years after returning to a faculty job, to become a provost.

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