Behind the News

Behind the News

The stories making headlines in higher education.
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True to HER promise made in the fall, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is continuing to address issues in higher education. In late November she convened an accreditation forum in Washington, D.C., with more than 60 representatives from disparate higher education institutions, councils, and associations. The Council for Aid to Education, the University of Texas System, and the American Association of Community Colleges are a sample of organizations represented.

Her buzzwords, as expected, were accessibility, affordability, and accountability. The forum, specifically, discussed the goal of aligning the current system of accreditation with proof of student learning. Student learning outcomes may eventually be part of a national database of information, which will allow students and parents to compare overall student performance at accredited colleges and universities.

Spellings has been very critical of the accreditation system. This was reflected in the final report written by her Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Her September speech introducing the report, given at the National Press Club, questioned whether IHEs are doing enough to ensure that students are graduating with the skills they need.

In their defense, the higher education accrediting bodies say that they have already begun improving processes and making changes. Following 1998's Congressional directive to make "success with respect to student achievement" a top priority, several regional accrediting bodies, including members of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, shifted their emphasis away from metrics that view financial solvency or how many faculty members have doctorate degrees, to direct measures of student learning.

At University of the South (Tenn.), the English department has devised a way for all professors to measure similar student work in all classes. The new method of measurement goes into effect next fall. The change follows a directive from the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges, the university's accrediting body, which insisted that more focus on student learning outcomes was necessary.

Spellings and her team will admit that improvements to the accreditation process were in the works before the commission released its final report, but they contend that the changes have not come fast enough.

The outcome of November's forum is mixed, says attendee Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. "There are no details, but there are plans to take the next steps and have individual meetings with accreditors." Eaton is taking a positive approach to the changes. "We believe these are the right issues to be discussing, but we need to take the right positions." What she resists-and what many fear-is a federal fiat impacting all of U.S. higher education. -Jean Marie Angelo

SOUND BITE: Affirmative action is alive and well and it's not going to go away. -Linda Avila, director of staff affirmative action at University of California, Los Angeles.

The Student Conduct Board at The Johns Hopkins University (Md.) placed the Sigma Chi fraternity on probation until January 2008 and suspended a student for posting a party invitation that invoked stereotypes about African-Americans, AIDS victims, and Baltimore residents. Party organizers followed administration orders to remove the invitation, which was posted on Facebook.com, but then reposted it a few hours later. Reports also indicate the frat's social chair was suspended for a year, but details about this individual student are protected by FERPA.

The Baltimore Chapter of the NAACP says it's not enough. Marvin Cheatham, local NAACP president, met with Johns Hopkins President William Brody and suggested educational and volunteer opportunities for the students. "We're not looking for punishment, we're looking for rehabilitation," Cheatham says. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) says the punishment is too much and is repressing free speech. Dennis O'Shea, university spokesman, says officials were "happy to have input from a number of responsible parties" and will take the recommendations under consideration, "but we have to base our response on university policy." -Ann McClure

By Mary Burgan

The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006; 264 p.p.; $38.00; www.press.jhu.edu/books

As the landscape of higher education changes, becoming focused on management efficiency, digital learning, and campuses of the future, there is one group getting left behind: the faculty.

Author and administrator Mary Burgan makes the case that the voice of the faculty is marginalized in campus planning efforts, governance, and even in forming curriculum and embracing instructional technology.

Careful consensus building has given way to competition in higher education for fundraising dollars and faculty recruitment.

She bemoans, too, the reliance on non-tenure faculty members in all parts of academe. Current staff structures are not giving all students access to faculty and mentorship. This is especially true for average students-those not lucky enough to be part of the honors class or special forum. The students who are struggling more are the very ones who need contact with faculty the most.

Burgan, the former general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, offers hope in the text. She includes an ending chapter of case studies that outline how faculty and administrators came to work better together at a number of IHEs large and small.

The author is also a professor of English emerita at Indiana University-Bloomington. -J.M.A.

SOUND BITE: Senator, I am not giving up the presidency of Texas A&M, the job that I've probably enjoyed more than any that I have ever had ... to be a bump on a log. -Robert Gates during his Senate confirmation hearing to be secretary of defense.

who are engaged with their school have a better chance at success. This is especially important at the community college level, where students are more likely to be juggling work and family along with their courseload. The Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) helps institutions track progress and evaluate and target areas for improvement.

"That's the major purpose of the survey," says Kay McClenney, CCSSE director. The survey focuses on engagement in the five areas of active and collaborative learning, student/faculty interaction, academic challenge, student effort, and support for learners. This year's survey shows a difference in the experiences between part-time and full-time students. Part-time students are less likely than full-time students to discuss grades or assignments with an instructor (40 percent vs. 51 percent), use e-mail to communicate with an instructor (34 percent vs. 47 percent), or talk about career plans with an instructor or advisor (19 percent vs. 30 percent). McClenney points out the purpose of the survey is for individual schools to track their progress, because to see trends at the national level would take major changes at several colleges. "The usefulness of it depends on each individual school and how much they want to do," she says.

Bill Law, president of Tallahassee Community College (Fla.) and a firm believer in CCSSE, was part of the pilot program when he was in Texas in 2004. TCC used the survey results as part of its self-assessment during the accreditation process, he says. Law adds that the survey can help create "deep seated changes" in an institution. As an example, Law relates that TCC faculty were surprised when they scored low in classes requiring critical thinking. Over the course of the last two years 95 percent of the syllabi have been revised to highlight critical thinking. Law was pleased the project was faculty driven. He says one of the benefits of the CCSSE is that it provides faculty a tool to gauge student learning without judging any particular faculty member. Community colleges have to work hard to differentiate themselves and to engage students who lead "very busy lives," Law says. The CCSSE is a useful tool to help achieve those goals. -A.M.

DATA POINT:  95% Percentage of counseling directors reporting an increase in students who were already on psychiatric medications when they came for help. -Survey, Directors of College Counseling Centers.

For nearly 2,000 historical campus sites at approximately 370 independent U.S. institutions, it's not a matter of if their walls could talk. It's about what those walls are saying. And how attentively their administrators are listening.

The Council of Independent Colleges has launched the CIC Historic Campus Architecture Project (HCAP), a database of searchable information about significant buildings, landscapes, campus plans, and heritage sites of American higher education. The photographs, drawings, and descriptions "form a treasure trove for understanding the places where students have learned and professors have taught," says CIC President Richard Ekman.

The 23 institutions responding to an informal University Business survey about the CIC HCAP indicate that the site is already being put to good use, for: campus planning; promoting a school's presence to prospective students and staff as well as to alumni; sharing campus buildings' histories with the public; and seeing work by particular architectural design firms. Many schools provide a link from their own websites to their pages on the CIC site, www.cic.edu/hcap. -Melissa Ezarik

The University of Arizona's leaders believe that Web 2.0 technologies will be a driving force in the workplace of the future, so they're laying the foundation for teaching those skills to students. The school has partnered with IBM's Academic Initiative program to help students master such things as blogs, online social networking, and podcasting.

The program will help replenish the supply of skilled IT-savvy workers lost to the dot-com bust at the beginning of the decade. Computer science studies declined in the ensuing years, but now, with emergence of new technologies related to the Web 2.0 framework, businesses anticipate a new need to have employees with these skills.

"It's a natural evolution of the web," says Andrea Winkle, UA adjunct instructor and coordinator of early outreach for the MIS department. "They're going to have to learn to involve their customers more in their value chain and it's going to give those who do a competitive advantage."

Students will learn about the role of online communities in business, the common types of community tools and environments, and how to launch, populate, and grow communities. The course consists of traditional lectures, virtual class sessions, and real-world experiences. -Tim Goral

From sales pitches for "v1@gra" to pleas for help transferring funds by the son of a former leader of an African country who was killed by his enemies, our in-boxes are full of spam mail.

But there's one e-mail message that people are reading. It's the "Financial Tip of the Week" from the University of Missouri-Columbia's Office for Financial Success. Written by OFS Director Mark Oleson, the messages are directed to students who have little experience with personal finance. The e-mail offers tips on eliminating debt, opting out of solicitations, negotiating a lower credit-card-rate, and understanding changes to student loan legislation. Oleson started writing the weekly tips six-and-a-half years ago when he was at Iowa State. The project is intended to give students unbiased, personalized information. More students will drop out of college for financial reasons than academic reasons, he notes. "I wanted to inform students about the available financial counseling services. If someone didn't know about it and could have benefited from it, that bothers me," he says.

The "Financial Tip of the Week" e-mail has grown to more than 43,000 subscribers nationwide, and it now has a companion blog (www.financialtip.blogspot.com), launched last August. "We were getting complaints from our 'computer people' about the large size of the e-mails and they asked us to use an outside service to disseminate our tip; thus was the birth of the blog," Oleson says.

Other schools may soon be following Oleson's lead. He says he's had inquiries from Northern Colorado University, the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Columbia College and DePaul University (Ill.) about the program. -T.G.

When Virginia Tech's Office of Economic Development (OED) and Deans' Task Force on Energy Security and Sustainability organized an October forum for VA Tech energy researchers, organizers expected up to 100 participants. Close to 200 showed up. The amount of research "kind of overwhelmed us," says Chad Miller, an economic development specialist in the OED. Even within the same university, it's tough to know what everyone is up to.

The discussion served as preparation for a larger event on November 29 and 30, the Energy Research and Engagement Showcase. The aim: Help businesses and community leaders learn about energy-related activities, research, and results at Virginia universities.

Dialogue with the government and corporate sectors is important for increasing sponsored research and promoting how university groups can work with companies and keep graduates in the area, Miller says. As for inviting other universities, he points to the unique strengths of each institution and how collaboration has become a bigger part of university research. Interdisciplinary and cross-institutional collaboration "also strengthen our proposals with the state agencies," explains Miller, adding that he knows of about 10 states involved in similar dialogue-building energy initiatives.

More than 150 people attended the showcase, including university researchers, company representatives, and government officials. The areas that appeared to have the greatest potential are: biofuels; nuclear energy; fuel cells; network infrastructure security and reliability; coal gasification and carbon sequestration; and energy efficiency policy. -M.E.

When the board of trustees convenes to make decisions that affect an entire institution, it would seem only fair that all constituents should have some input in the decision-making process. That's the way the board of trustees at Hampshire College (Mass.) sees things, as underscored by the news that it will be adding an elected, full-voting trustee from among the college's staff.

The staff trustee will be chosen by a Staff Advisory Committee and join the Board in July. Until then, a non-voting staff observer will attend board meetings in February and May.

Hampshire President Ralph Hexter said he was honored to be leading an institution that would take the important step to ensure the perspective of the staff on the board.

Hampshire, a member of the Five College consortium that includes Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Smith, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, has long had an elected student trustee and an elected faculty trustee, but the elected staff trustee position is still a rarity. Cornell is the only other institution with a governance board that includes fully voting employee members, according to Kristin MacHenry, assistant secretary of Cornell's board. -T.G.

Our web culture is built upon an informal code of ethics where the "do not steal" edict applies. But, as Excelsior College (N.Y.) now knows, not everyone follows this code. After battling a three-year copyright lawsuit against Professional Development Systems School of Health Services, a California-based educational corporation, and its owner Charles M. Frye, Excelsior has come out on top. The jury found the defendants guilty of infringing copyrighted questions and answers on several of Excelsior's credit-bearing nursing exams and content guides and awarded the College $7.8 million in reparations.

Despite the positive outcome for Excelsior, there are still unanswered questions. It's still unclear exactly how Frye gained access to the information, though it is known that he had tutored Excelsior students. Frye did admit that his business was almost exclusively based around Excelsior's program, says Bill Stewart, interim vice president for enrollment management at Excelsior.

"We never expected this to happen," says Stewart. "We had all of the standard security procedures in place and we took all of the right precautions. But you can't prevent somebody from remembering information and sharing it."

Now, the question is: How will Excelsior and other online institutions protect their course content and trade secrets? Stewart is still a believer in the honor code. "We have a stringent academic honesty policy. If we find that people have violated this policy by cheating or stealing exam questions, we will take action," he says.

Excelsior's case serves as an important example for online IHEs and other institutions that publish proprietary content on the web. Perhaps it will also serve as a deterrent for would-be infringers, Stewart says. "They now know that if they're caught, they put themselves in jeopardy of a significant penalty." -Alana Klein

Last month, President Bush announced the appointment of four people to serve on a Board of Advisors on Tribal Colleges and Universities. The board, established by executive order in 2002, is charged with ensuring that tribal colleges and universities have full access to federal and private programs and funds that benefit other postsecondary institutions.

One of the most underserved student populations in the country is that of the Native American. Some 32 tribal colleges and universities exist to serve these people, and are often the only postsecondary institutions available in some of the country's poorest rural areas. They provide crucial services to communities that suffer high rates of poverty and unemployment.

Named to the board were: Verna Fowler, president of College of the Menominee Nation (Wisc.) who is a member of the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin; Joseph Hiller, assistant dean for Native American Programs, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, University of Arizona, who is a member of the Lakota Sioux Tribe; Richard Stephens, senior vice president for Human Resources and Administration at The Boeing Company, who is a member of the Pala Band of Mission Indians; and Edward Thomas, president of the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, of which he is also a member. -T.G.


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