Behind The News

Behind The News

Stories making headlines in higher education
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The state of Michigan is at the center of a heated affirmative action debate again, except this time the judges are state residents, not black-robed jurists on the U.S. Supreme Court.

On November 7, voters in Michigan will have an opportunity to pass or nix Proposal 2, also known as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative. The proposal would prohibit state and local governments from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to any individual or group based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the areas of public employment, contracting, and education.

The initiative to get MCRI on the ballot first emerged in 2003, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the University of Michigan could continue using race as a factor in its admissions. California businessman Ward Connerly, the figure behind similar ballot measures in California and Washington, recruited Jennifer Gratz, a lead plaintiff in one of the Michigan cases, to head up a ballot movement in the Wolverine State.

One organization, the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action by Any Means Necessary (BAMN), has tried to keep Proposal 2 off the ballot due to alleged fraud in the original gathering of petition signatures. In August, U.S. District Judge Arthur Tarnow did find "systematic voter fraud" in the petition-gathering (residents were allegedly told they were signing a petition that supported affirmative action). But he opted to keep the measure on the ballot because the fraudulent practices did not violate the federal Voting Rights Act.

High-profile individuals and groups, including Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman, have come out against Proposal 2. During a speech commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday earlier this year, Coleman noted that the proposal "is wrong-headed. It will turn our state in the wrong direction, at a time when we desperately need to recast our economy and the people who will shape it."

Notes Donna Stern, national coordinator for BAMN, the proposal would "re-create a separate and unequal two-tiered education system, and really roll back civil rights progress we've made."

Yet the group Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, which is behind Prop 2 and which shares the name of the proposal, says preferential practices amount to discrimination. Gratz, executive director of the group, sees gaps between black and white graduation rates as evidence that preferential policies don't work. "It would seem to me a university should be more concerned with who's graduating and who's getting degrees than being able to look out their window and give themselves a pat on their back because they see 'diversity' on their campuses," she says.

With Election Day nearing, whether Prop 2 will pass remains truly unclear. Residents polled in late summer were evenly split on the issue. -Caryn Meyers Fliegler

SOUND BITE

It's all about the money-any administrator will tell you that it's not for the excitement of college football. Let's not kid ourselves.

-Rich Rodriguez, head football coach at West Virginia, on the rise in appearance fees for low-level teams against top opponents.

Finals are pretty stressful, but the first hurdle for students to clear is move-in day. To make this year a little easier, Lehigh University (Pa.) added an "I forgot shop" to its campus bookstore where students and parents could find everything from storage crates and bedspreads to hammers and light bulbs. Local professional organizer Diane Albright, from HGTV's Mission: Organization, was on hand in a pair of model rooms to offer advice and tips. Students could also order organizational items from Albright. "We will definitely do it next year," says Allison Ragon, coordinator for first year student programs. Since this was the first year, the administrators have a better idea of what items to offer in the shop next year. Ragon says the idea for the shop came from student workers and the idea for the professional organizer was the result of a brainstorming session. She encourages other universities to try the program, noting that it helped reduce stress and "families could see the university is supporting them."-Ann McClure

Two recently released surveys illuminate the effects that this country's most prominent disasters of the 21st century have had on IHEs and their students.

"September 11: Effects on My Campus Five Years Later," conducted by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, found that many schools (more than 30 percent) have experienced major or transformative effects due to post-9/11 visa rules and the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, or SEVIS. "Since 9/11 the opportunity to bring international students and faculty to this country has grown more problematic," says David Warren, president of NAICU.

Curriculum has also been an area of some transformation, with courses on religion, Islam, and the Middle East springing up around the country. And nearly 21 percent of respondents said they have seen a major impact on campus risk management and security due to 9/11.

Universities close to Ground Zero have endured experiences all their own. "First, it made us all realize that we are all more vulnerable than we thought," says David Caputo, president of Pace University which has a campus in downtown Manhattan. The terrorist attacks and their aftermath also gave Pace a greater sense of community, says Caputo, as well as cause to rethink physical security.

Not every area of life-whether at Pace or other schools-has been affected by 9/11. According to NAICU's survey, a majority of independent IHEs have seen moderate or little to no effects on campus academic freedom, study abroad programs, and budgets. The survey of 133 presidents and senior-level administrators also found that, for most schools, the U.S.A. PATRIOT ACT has had moderate or little to no effect.

Unlike the aftermath of 9/11, the fallout of Hurricane Katrina has fermented for only a year. As time passes, administrators, faculty, and staff should make students aware of the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, says John Marszalek, an assistant professor of counseling at Xavier University of Louisiana and a research fellow at Mississippi State University. Marszalek was among a group of professors from Xavier, Loyola University New Orleans, the University of New Orleans, and Mississippi State who conducted a web-based poll of displaced students last November and December, unearthing widespread indicators of depression and grief. -C.M.F.

By William M. Chace

Princeton University Press, 2006; 368 pp; $24.95; www.pupress.princeton.edu

By the end of the 1989-90 academic year, his second as president of Wesleyan University (Conn.), William Chace had dealt with the firebombing of his office, an increasingly negative image of the university in the press, and the death of a student (not to mention Hurricane Hugo's visit to Chace's inauguration ceremony).

"The words of one of Wesleyan's trustees, Gerald Baliles, echoed in my mind," Chace writes in his book. "When he served as the governor of Virginia he learned that the single most important feature of administrative life was the 'unexpected, the things you can't control, the accidents.' He was right."

That message lies at the heart of 100 Semesters. The book takes readers through Chace's life in higher education, from the time he was an undergraduate at Haverford College (Pa.) to his graduate studies at UC, Berkeley, his teaching days at Stillman College (Ala.) and Stanford University (Calif.), and his presidencies at Wesleyan and Emory University (Ga.). Throughout his work Chace weaves great respect for IHEs with a dose of anxiety about their current state; he also exhibits a strong belief in the importance of faculty.

100 Semesters works well thanks to the author's engaging narrative and thoughtful insights. -C.M.F.

What makes an online campus successful? What leads to its downfall? Administrators at the University of Illinois have deeply explored these questions in preparation to launch a much-watched online campus.

Still in development, the University of Illinois Global Campus will offer, on a large scale, courses in accelerated formats that meet the needs of non-traditional students. Its creation is based on the belief that online education has matured in recent years. "We feel that higher education is going to be a rich mix of face-to-face, online, lecture, residential, and non-residential experiences," says Chet Gardner, who is overseeing the initiative as special assistant to the president.

The online campus will operate as a Limited Liability Company, University Related Organization, meaning it will be governed by a Board of Managers and will not rely on state funds. An estimated $15 to $20 million will be raised initially to support the endeavor. Administrators at U of I have other online successes-including the University of Phoenix, the University of Maryland University College, and Walden University-in their sights, as well as failures such as NYU Online. Lessons learned? A customer-centered focus is key, as are providing accelerated course formats; enrolling multiple cohorts; insisting on academic quality; and training faculty.

"I was also struck by how important graduation rates were to the financial viability," says Gardner. Supporting students is crucial. Some schools with limited resources outsource such services. For its online programs, Gonzaga University (Wash.) outsources to Deltak edu. "The real foundation of success is around the partnerships that we have," says Mary McFarland, dean, School of Professional Studies. -C.M.F.

Law professors at the California Western School of Law are vying for a spot on iPod playlists with a weekly podcast program called Law in 10, which provides legal analysis on current news topics, all in 10 minutes or less.

Recent segments have included Professor Ruth Hargrove on the police shooting incident involving San Diego Charger Steve Foley, while Associate Dean Janet Bowermaster discussed the legal and cultural aspects of polygamy in the case against polygamist Warren Jeffs. Another featured Professor William Aceves's perspective on why the president's military commissions may not be legal and whether various interrogation techniques used on terror suspects could be considered torture.

The school hopes the podcast will showcase its faculty experts to off-campus audiences and introduce potential law students to the faculty experts at CWSL.

Listeners can receive a free weekly subscription to the legal podcast using RSS feeds, or can listen to podcasts directly from the California Western website at www.cwsl.edu/Lawin10. -Tim Goral

Theme dorms, ranging from academic to frat houses, have been around forever. But a growing trend is Christian dorms on secular campuses. Westminster House, down the street from the University of California, Berkeley, has been housing students since the 1950s, and has expanded to 171 beds. Rev. Randy Bare says the residence is open to students of all faiths and he's started a partnership, Student Center Associates, to help other campus ministries start their own campus housing. As a public university, Berkeley would not be able to offer a religious dorm, but Westminster House is on the official list the university provides students looking for off-campus housing. Although the university has a disclaimer that it is not responsible for off-campus units, it does perform site inspections and keeps lines of communication open with landlords. -A.M.

George Mason University (Va.), an institution that is part of the state system, has become the latest higher education institution to change its policy on SAT and ACT tests. Beginning with fall 2006, high school seniors with grade point averages of 3.5 or higher, and who rank in the top 20 percent of their class, will not have to submit SAT scores to be considered for admission. This summer, Providence College (R.I.) announced that it was dropping the test scores altogether as part of its application process. Providence President Rev. Brian Shanley described the institution's policy change as an effort to close the "student accessibility gap." The college wants to draw more urban students and under-served applicants, he says.

George Mason's dean of admissions, Andrew Flagel, says the university, which drew more than 10,000 applicants last year, has been reviewing admissions decisions for the past three years. "Data indicates that for students with strong grades and records, the SAT and ACT scores have not been predictive of their success." George Mason will be putting more emphasis on written essays, high school performance, and other factors when making admissions decisions, he says.

Caren Scoopanos, a public affairs spokesperson for The College Board, the nonprofit that owns the SAT test, offers that the recent policy changes do not signal an admissions trend. Not surprisingly, she defends the use of the SAT. "We feel that dropping the SAT or ACT makes the admissions process more subjective." -J.M.A.

The classroom might be visited by short green aliens or sword-wielding samurai that sometimes float above the action, but no one bats an eye. What sounds like a science fiction nightmare is actually an English Composition class at Ball State University (Ind.), but with a twist. It takes place in the "virtual world" of SecondLife, a shared online community where users, who often assume unusual physical appearances, interact with others and participate in various functions of SecondLife society.

Sarah Robbins, known in SecondLife as Intellagirl, has been leading the class since August, teaching in the real world one day and in SecondLife the next.

"I won't deny that there is a learning curve that has to be overcome to teaching inside SecondLife, but the payoff is well worth the effort," Robbins says. "I've never seen a class as enthusiastic, excited, or engaged as the one I'm teaching this semester."

How can a serious subject be taught to a class of giant Kool-Aid pitchers and exotic winged creatures? Robbins believes the novelty of the virtual world can actually enhance learning. "While they're [exploring SecondLife], they're also learning valuable lessons about community, identity, and ethnographic research-and writing a ton!"

The class is one of a handful of online teaching experiments in the SecondLife environment. In September, Harvard Law Professor Charles Nesson (aka Eon, Dean of Cyberspace) and his daughter Rebecca began a virtual course called "CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion," that explores ways in which new media influences debate. Others are testing the waters as well, says Robbins, who co-edits the SLED Picayune, an educator's "in-world" newspaper. "We keep a list of the current courses being taught in SL," she says. "As far as I know, my class is the only one that isn't open (like Harvard's) that meets in SL every week, and not just for part of the semester." -T.G.

Students are graduating with greater debts than ever before, and many can't afford to go to college at all. That's the bottom line argument by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) in discussing the current state of higher education and his plan to end what he calls the raid on student aid. Miller and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) joined Campaign for America's Future co-director Robert Borosage in a teleconference last month to announce a series of state and national reports that show four-year public college costs have increased 42 percent since 2001, while median family income has fallen 2 percent.

Despite this trend, the Republican-led Congress cut $12 billion in funding from federal student aid programs earlier this year. The reports detail the politics that drove those cuts, as well as the voting records of congressmen during the process.

The teleconference also publicized Miller's "Reverse the Raid on Student Aid Act," written to make college more affordable. The proposal would cut in half interest rates on student and parent loans, now fixed at all-time highs of 6.8 percent and 8.5 percent, respectively. Under this plan, students who typically carry $17,500 in debt would save $5,600 over the life of their loans.

"Cutting college financial aid is clearly the wrong direction for our students and our economy at a time when we should be doing all we can to increase college attendance and strengthen our nation's workforce," Miller said.

Kennedy framed the argument in terms of the economy. "This administration has turned its back on middle-income students, and on the neediest students who have academic qualifications, just at the time when we are facing another challenge internationally, and that is globalization," he said. "How are we going to develop the innovative industries of our time and high-paying jobs with good benefits? How are we going to maintain a world-class economy that is second to none? It is education at the core."

The current loan programs favor banks, not students, Kennedy said, and should be open to competition like other aspects of federal funding. -T.G.


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