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Beyond the News

Behind the News

The stories making headlines in higher education.
University Business, May 2007

THE MASS SHOOTING ON APRIL 16 AT VIRGINIA POLYTECHNIC INSTI-tute and State University-the deadliest in U.S. history has reopened arguments in higher ed about privacy laws that limit revelations about troubled students. It has also prompted reviews of security measures on campuses nationwide.

The shooting at Virginia Tech is being called higher education's Columbine. While the 1999 shooting at the Colorado high school left 12 dead, the Virginia Tech tragedy had 33 casualties, including the shooter, Cho Seung-Hui, an English student at the university. In a video sent to NBC News between his two killing sprees on campus, Cho references Columbine, while using rhetoric characteristic of such deadly suicidal shooters. Cho saw himself as a victim who was driven to kill classmates and faculty in revenge. In the reporting in the aftermath, former high school classmates recall Cho being antisocial, while at the same time being the victim of bullying. He obviously carefully planned his attack, dispelling the notion that such shooters suddenly "snap."

There were plenty of warning signs about Cho. Several women on campus complained about Cho's e-mails and instant messages to them. Professors, including poet Nikki Giovanni, were disturbed by the violent subject matter in Cho's coursework. Cho was mandated by a court in 2005 to get help for his mental illness, but Virginia Tech administrators have clearly noted that this was outside of the school's legal purview. Of course, the limits of student privacy laws, the reach of in loco parentis, and a university's responsibility have dominated the media coverage in the aftermath of the shooting.

"They can't really kick someone out because they're writing papers about weird topics, even if they seem withdrawn and hostile," Richard Kadison, M.D., director of mental health services, Harvard University, told the press.

Still, there are several court cases that have challenged the current understanding, notably the lawsuit brought by the parents of Elizabeth Shin, an MIT student who committed suicide after exhibiting suicidal behavior and seeking counseling. MIT respected Shin's right to privacy by not informing her parents of her troubles. The parents, in turn, sued the university claiming they would have helped their daughter had they only known the trouble she was in. MIT eventually settled with Shin's parents for an undisclosed sum.

The Virginia Tech tragedy also highlights the need for tight emergency plans and campus security. Security officials have been roundly criticized for not locking down the campus immediately after Cho's first shooting incident in a residence hall. After killing two people, Cho then slipped away, mailed his tape, and resurfaced two hours later to kill 30 others in Norris Hall. Campus police lost time chasing down a false lead. They also met with President Charles Steger before finally sending out e-mail alerts and announcing warning messages on a public address system. "That is basically a flaw in this operation," says Adam Thermos, a campus security consultant. -Jean Marie Angelo

THE BATTLE TO RESTORE NEWcomb College, the women's college of Tulane University (La.), as a degree granting institution continues in court this month, while efforts to support and fund the fight grow.

In March, nine pieces of prized Newcomb pottery drew $27,500 during an auction at New Orleans Auction Galleries, Inc., organized to rally Newcomb supporters and raise money for legal fees. One of the pieces fetched $15,600 from an anonymous participant who called in his bids.

Newcomb pottery is famous in the art world for its unique colors and markings, and for the history behind it. The pieces were decorated by Newcomb College students and alumna at a time when most women either married or became teachers but did not become professional artists, according to Jean Bragg, owner of the Jean Bragg Gallery of Southern Art and author of The Newcomb Style and Newcomb College Arts and Crafts Sales Exhibition (2000 and 1998, respectively, both self-published).

"This gave these young women an opportunity to produce a product and become an independent resource for making money, and having a livelihood," says Bragg.

Supporters of Newcomb College, such as Bragg, believe Tulane made a mistake in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when the Board of Administrators opted to dissolve Newcomb as a college, creating in its place the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College Institute (which does not grant degrees).

"Sometimes decisions are made in haste, and there was a lot of panic and haste after the hurricane," says Renee Seblatnegg, president of The Future of Newcomb College, Inc., which is dedicated to saving Newcomb College and funding the legal fight. "Newcomb had a terrific enrollment, it was financially sound, and it was one of the strongest parts of the university."

What we're after here is real culture change, and culture change doesn't come easily. We are comfortable taking the lead.
-Princeton Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel on grade deflation.

Money raised through the pottery auction will help pay for the legal fees for Howard v. Tulane University, a lawsuit filed by two nieces of the college's founder. The suit is on appeal in Louisiana's state court system and is slated for argument this month. It asserts that Newcomb should remain open based on the principle of "donor intent," since Josephine Louise Newcomb donated $3,626,551 to Tulane to advance the cause of female education through the establishment of the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College. -C.M.F.

IN THE 1980S THE PROBLEM WAS SO BAD, THE FBI LAUNCHED AN investigation called "DipScam," shorthand for Operation Diploma Scam. That initiative led to the closing of some 40 phony degree mills and more than 20 convictions.

But degree mills are back and, aided by the internet, have grown to what some estimate may be a $1 billion industry. And with people in business, government, and even education itself obtaining bogus credentials, they're not going away soon.

' Lightning doesn't strike the same place twice.
-High school senior Lauren Heilman, who still plans to attend Virginia Tech in the fall, quoted in the Richmond-Times Dispatch.

Now The Council for Higher Education Accreditation ( has published a list of suggestions to help combat site-based and distance-based degree mills. The suggestions have been sent to key stakeholders in state and federal government, educators, accreditors, and others, to alert them to the problem and enlist their aid.

1. Know What Degree Mills Are: Create Tools for Identification

- Identify key characteristics and common practices of mills.

- Develop and apply definitions of degree mills.

2. Stop the Funding for Degree Mills: Deny Government or Private Sector Financial Support

- Assure that degree mills do not receive public (taxpayer) funds.

- Assure that students attending mills do not receive publicly funded student aid.

- Assure that there is no employer-funded tuition assistance.

3. Inform the Public about Degree Mills: Educate for Awareness

- Routinely inform the public about how degree mills harm students and society.

- Assure that advertising of higher education is confined to legitimate providers and not degree mills.

- Identify and publicize questionable marketing and recruitment practices associated with degree mills.

- Educate the public about the role of the Internet in making distance-based degree mills readily available.

4. Pursue Legal Action Against Degree Mills

- Encourage and assist with the development of federal, state, or local law that make establishing, licensing, and operating degree mills illegal.

- Work to make the use of fraudulent degrees (e.g., for obtaining or upgrading employment) illegal.

5. Use Evidence of Quality Provided by Recognized Accreditation and Quality Assurance Bodies

- Use accreditation and quality assurance lists to identify reliable higher education institutions and programs.

6. Address Degree Mills Internationally: Contain the Expansion

- Establish cross-border agreements among countries that discourage the import and export of site-based and distance-based degree mills.

- Develop reliable country-based lists of legitimate higher education providers.

- Develop a list of degree mill characteristics, practices and providers. -Tim Goral

BURLINGTON, VT., MAY NOT BE A LIKELY PLACE TO STUDY THE criminal mind. After all, how many bad guys can you come across in a college town? Well, a professor at Champlain College (Vt.) has a surprising answer to that question. Burlington, apparently, is a good place to study crime-especially the emerging field of cybercrime.

Since 2003, Gary Kessler, professor and director of the college's Center for Digital Investigation, has led about 160 students who are majoring in this field of study, which is part of the college's bachelor of science program. Everything is fair game: identity theft; those scam spam messages from an alleged Nigerian bank that beg the recipient to help retrieve funds; hackers; careless criminals that leave digital trails on cellphones and PDAs.

Now Champlain's cybercrime academics are teaming up with local law enforcement. Thanks to a $650,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance, two faculty members will conduct digital investigations and teach local cops and detectives how to better fight cybercrime. Kessler, too, provides pro bono services to the police. "What the cops bring us is real experience in how this stuff really works," Kessler says.

Cybercrime is a growing field, one that's bound to become more important with the proliferation of devices criminals use to contact each other or record information that is later used as evidence. Kessler asserts that some type of digital evidence is now part of almost every crime committed. "Computers are now as much a part of modern law enforcement as the baton, sidearm, radio, and handcuffs," he says. -J.M.A.

SINCE HURRICANE KATRINA DEVASTATED THE Gulf Coast in 2005, it has been fashionable for college students to spend spring break in that region helping with recovery efforts. But at some IHEs, "service breaks" have been taking place for years. The Global Partnerships program, for example, launched at North Park University (Ill.) eight years ago. Students get sent to international locations like Zambia and Thailand and domestic locations like Appalachia to work with underprivileged children. Richard Johnson, director of University Ministries, says such trips have been happening unofficially since the school's founding. This year a total of 140 students will go on trips during the spring, summer, and winter breaks. Gannon University (Pa.) students have been spending part of summer break at a Lakota-Sioux summer camp in South Dakota since 1993 and working with Habitat for Humanity since 1995. Students also work in a soup kitchen in New York City and on the Arizona/Mexico border. Arlene Montevecchio, director of the Center for Social Concerns, says they had to turn students away from the program this year. And, of course, both schools have sent groups to New Orleans. -A.M.

ABOUT THREE YEARS AGO THE UNIVERSITY of Illinois at Springfield began billing students in campus-owned apartments a flat rate for utilities. The dire warnings Director of Housing John Ringle received about students wasting electricity (opening windows in December, leaving TVs on at all hours) came true, with some monthly bills as high as $400. Now students will be charged if they use more than 10 percent above the average for their court. Ringle says all the units have individual meters, but going back to individual bills isn't feasible because the new units would be billed through the college, causing a drain on department resources, and the old units would be billed directly from the utility company, causing logistical nightmares because students don't stay put. "I'm not sure there is a perfect solution," Ringle says. Most students are open to suggestions on ways to conserve. Students have requested any savings be put toward winterizing the older units. -A.M.

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