Higher Education News

Ted Mitchell will be the American Council on Education's next president

Inside HigherEd - Thu, 07/20/2017 - 07:00

The next leader of the American Council on Education will be Ted Mitchell, who in January wrapped up an eventful and influential stint as the top higher education official in the Obama administration’s Education Department.

The industry’s chief lobbying organization said this week that Mitchell will replace Molly Broad, ACE's first woman leader, who will retire in October after a nine-year tenure.

Mitchell’s hire is sure to turn heads, and not just because he’s a former Obama official who takes the reins at a time when Republicans dominate both Washington and state capitols.

Many in higher education and beyond view Mitchell as an accessible and pragmatic straight shooter. But his career has been more wide-ranging than that of his predecessors at ACE, who tend to have left prominent college presidencies shortly before taking the job.

Previous occupations for Mitchell include president of Occidental College; history professor; administrator at the University of California, Los Angeles; president of the California State Board of Higher Education; and CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund, a nonprofit group with roots in the charter school movement.

As a result, his range of fans and critics is as varied as his CV.

For example, when Obama appointed Mitchell under secretary three years ago, The Nation, a liberal magazine, criticized his “strong ties” to education technology companies and to what it called his efforts to privatize public education, warning darkly that he might not be a champion of the Obama administration’s attempts to crack down on for-profit colleges.

Yet the month after his arrival at the Education Department, Mitchell was involved in the administration’s move to sanction Corinthian Colleges, which contributed to the controversial for-profit chain’s collapse. He then had the unenviable task of overseeing the federal government’s response to the aftermath, including how best to help scores of thousands of students who took on debt to attend Corinthian institutions. He played a similar role in the demise last year of ITT Technical Institutes.

While some for-profit industry officials initially praised Mitchell, those opinions changed as the Obama administration accelerated its crackdown on the sector, with the under secretary playing a visible role throughout.

Likewise, Mitchell contributed to the unsuccessful White House push to create a federal ratings system for colleges (one tied to federal aid). While that project began well before his arrival, he was often at odds with ACE and other industry groups, particularly ones representing private colleges, which generally resisted the ratings system.

In one unusual spat between a Democratic administration and the higher education lobby, Arne Duncan, the education secretary at the time, called out ACE for criticizing data systems that would undergird the ratings -- an argument by the group that rankled the administration and others because ACE typically has resisted the collection of more student-level data by the federal government.

So as word got out of Mitchell being a finalist for the top job at ACE, some observers wondered whether he would stick to his guns on calling for more accountability in higher education.

In an interview, Mitchell said the focus on student outcomes by policy makers isn’t going to change. But he said getting those policies right takes a nuanced approach.

“It’s complicated to do,” said Mitchell. As a result, he said it was the right move for the department to shift from a “strict” ratings system to the more flexible approach the administration eventually took by instead releasing bulked-up and more accessible information about colleges’ performance. He praised ACE’s input for contributing to that shift.

When asked about his ability to work with Republicans, Mitchell said his focus has always been policy, not politics.

“I’m not and never pretended to be a politician,” he said. “I’ve had good working relationships on both sides of the aisle.”

Innovation and Accountability

Lawmakers tend to find more bipartisan agreement on higher education than on other issues, said Mitchell. And he cited ACE’s work to identify possible areas for deregulation with Senator Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who leads the Senate’s education committee, as an area of past cooperation between the industry and Republicans.

Mitchell has long been seen as an advocate for innovation in higher education. At the department he played a leadership role on several projects aimed at encouraging new approaches and even alternative providers, such as through the federal EQUIP experiment, which makes federal aid available to a limited number of partnerships between traditional colleges and unaccredited institutions such as skills boot camps and online course providers.

ACE also has prodded the industry on innovation, such as through its embrace of massive open online courses.

For a century the group has pushed to expand opportunities for underserved student populations, Mitchell said, such as its longstanding efforts to help student veterans to earn college credits for their service in the U.S. military.

“ACE has been doing the work of innovation throughout its history,” he said.

The group’s track record of late, however, has been mixed.

Broad, who came to ACE after leading the University of North Carolina system, has seen a string of her high-profile hires leave after short stints, with many of the quickest departures having worked on innovation-related projects.

While observers say the group remains active and often effective on higher education policy, some think its influence has waned.

The arrival of Mitchell, who has been doing some consulting work for ACE, will excite some in higher education who would like to see a more assertive role for the group.

Paul LeBlanc is president of Southern New Hampshire University and a member of ACE’s board. He said Mitchell’s hire reflects a desire by the board to “broaden the narrative” as higher education continues to experience an enormous amount of scrutiny, including on rising tuition and student debt levels and concerns about the value of college credentials in the work force.

“There’s a foundation there, perhaps an underrated one,” he said of the group. “We need a vibrant ACE that can be a central voice.”

LeBlanc described Mitchell, with whom he worked during a brief stint as an adviser at the Education Department, as being “better suited” than almost anyone to straddle divides between innovation and accountability.

The policy environment also has changed in recent years, LeBlanc said.

“The movement toward data is inexorable,” he said. “It’s going to happen.”

Mitchell said he will overlap with Broad for a month. He’ll have plenty to keep him busy during the transition, citing the group’s advocacy on hot issues like the consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and funding for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.

Job one, he said, will be to ensure that ACE has sufficient resources for its policy work. And a big part of that equation is the expertise and clout that come from its members, which include roughly 1,800 college presidents and leaders from other higher education organizations.

“The strength of ACE lives in the diversity of their members,” Mitchell said.

Accreditation and Student LearningFor-Profit Higher EdStudent Aid and LoansEditorial Tags: Distance educationFederal policyFinancial aidImage Caption: Ted MitchellIs this diversity newsletter?: Newsletter Order: 0Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

New book seeks to round out trigger warning debate with competing histories, case studies from the classroom

Inside HigherEd - Thu, 07/20/2017 - 07:00

Discussions about trigger warnings now almost need trigger warnings, they’ve become so divisive. A new volume by an initially skeptical academic doesn’t settle the great trigger warning debate, but it does attempt to bring history, theory and context to it (titularly and otherwise).

Trigger Warnings: History, Theory and Context was published recently by Rowman & Littlefield. Editor Emily J. M. Knox, an assistant professor of information sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, solicited essays from as many academic Listservs as she could find, as well as from colleagues within her field of library and information sciences and on social media. Crucial to the project was a variety of perspectives on what trigger warnings are, what they mean to academe and how and whether to use them. Contributing authors include those with library and information science, communications studies, gender studies, anthropology, political science, and law backgrounds.

“I have my own feelings about trigger warnings, but I thought it was important to have a lot of different voices from different fields,” Knox told Inside Higher Ed. “The controversy over trigger warnings also always seemed somewhat ahistorical to me -- as if trigger warnings suddenly appeared on websites and then moved to college campuses. I wanted the book to provide more context for understanding the debate.”

So it does. Knox begins with her own history as someone predisposed to hating “labels” for literature. That's based on her background in library and information sciences, in which more access to information is always better. She remains “ambivalent” about trigger warnings even after editing the book, but she does describe a slight lukewarming to the idea.

Knox tells of teaching a survey course on information policy that includes a discussion of digital labor. One of the assigned readings is a bluntly titled 2014 Wired piece, “The Laborers Who Keep Dick Pics and Beheadings Out of Your Facebook Feed.” The article describes the work of screening and censoring material for social media, performed mostly by laborers in developing nations -- many of whom suffer post-traumatic stress from looking at images such as child pornography day in and day out.

Knox didn’t offer her students a heads-up before they read the article, even though it included some graphic descriptions of the pictures in question. Did she make the right choice? She still doesn’t know; the gruesome photos were not the central part of the story -- the workers were. Yet next time she assigns the reading, she says, she will offer a heads-up that some imagery might be disturbing.

Why? “My primary research area is in intellectual freedom and censorship, and I think a lot about the power of reading and how texts can change lives. In many ways, trigger warnings are an acknowledgment of that power,” Knox said in an interview.

She added, “My basic feeling is that trigger warnings are about relationships. I want to have a good relationship with my students and I care about them, so giving a trigger warning is an important way to enact that.” At the same time, she said, she wouldn’t call it a “trigger warning” by name. That’s because the term has become “so political that I think we’ve forgotten that what we’re actually talking about is the people in our classrooms and the varied experiences that they bring with them.” (Knox also notes in her book that trigger warnings often relate to content from marginalized groups who have lived traumatic experiences -- i.e., stories that need to told and heard, not censored.)

What is a trigger warning? Knox notes that The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a statement at the start of a piece of writing, video, etc. alerting the reader or viewer to the fact that it contains potentially distressing material.” That’s compared to “content notes,” she says, which warn the reader of material that might contain less traumatic information. Yet many people -- including some of the book’s contributors -- use the two terms interchangeably, she says.

‘Rival Histories’

The rest of the book is divided into two parts: history and theory, and case studies. Again, the former section by no means settles the debate and even presents what Knox calls “rival histories” of trigger warnings. Indeed, the book defies the now-common notion that trigger warnings originated on feminist blogs. One chapter, for example, begins with a discussion of "war neurosis" in the soldiers of ancient Greece and Rome; it argues that trigger warnings can't be understood without first understanding the history of PTSD and trauma more generally. Another chapter portrays trigger warnings as an historical human rights-oriented accommodation to those who have experienced trauma, while yet another legal analysis argues that the research on the effectiveness of trigger warnings is so thin that First Amendment arguments against them will always trump accommodation arguments for them. Several scholars, one at length, note that trigger warnings have long been used in discussions about eating disorders. Several chapters focus on the idea that trigger warnings are fundamentally about the construction of audience.

So when did they become so controversial? Bonnie Washick, a postdoctoral research associate in political science and women’s and gender studies at Illinois, argues it was “students’ advocacy of trigger warnings as a systemic solution that elevated trigger warnings to a topic of national debate.” More precisely, she says, “it was the articulation of affinities between trigger warnings as a tool of equal access and the institutionalization of the Americans With Disabilities Act; Title IX [of the Education Amendments of 1972], which bars discrimination on the basis of sex; and diversity on college campuses that made it possible to imagine that the use of trigger warnings could come to be required, expected or simply normal.”

That’s a position echoed somewhat by Barbara Jones, former director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and executive director of the Freedom to Read Foundation, in her chapter on helping write the American Association of University Professors’ statement opposing mandatory trigger warnings.

“The latest policy for creating a safe, inclusive campus environment has been trigger warnings,” Jones wrote, noting that research suggests trigger warnings are student-, not faculty-driven. “What began as a PTSD diagnosis for returning veterans and victims of violent assault has been extended … to any number of traumatic events that are very real but arguably different (for example, the undercurrent of racial bias on campus) and require different treatment.”

Policy and Practice

Jones, like several other contributors, references Oberlin College’s short-lived trigger warning guidance as a kind of cautionary tale for writing trigger warning policy (it was widely seen as too broad and potentially punitive to professors who didn’t follow it, though the college has argued it was never forced on anyone). She offers several additional points of advice for writing policy, such as preserving the U.S. tradition of academic freedom and considering that students come to college with diverse background but also that those who request trigger warnings might have deeper concerns about campus climate. Trigger warnings are just one tool among many to create an inclusive campus, she says, and “trigger warnings are a quick fix for a systemic problem.”

Ultimately, Jones says, trigger warnings “are so much like book banning. Many well-meaning people challenge books because they want to help in one small way with a contemporary problem. It might be teen suicide. It might be racism. It is their way of expressing their concern in making the world a better place.” Yet “they must be shown that censorship creates barriers for others. And to remove themselves to a safe space is a real loss to dialogue. Avoiding a topic does not make it go away. In fact, engaging in uncomfortable content, at college, where one is surrounded by peers and support groups, is the best way.”

Case studies include one of the University of Kentucky's institution-wide trigger warning for Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption, a recent pick for a common reading program for new students. The book includes a graphic firsthand account of a rape and discussions of racial discrimination, the university was concerned enough to issue a "note" to the campus. It said, in part, that Picking Cotton needs to be read and utilized on campus with great sensitivity due to the issues it raises, such as sexual assault and racial dynamics. The book carries a trigger warning." Cards saying the same were distributed in student copies of the book, and Kentucky's president, Eli Capilouto, even recorded a YouTube message about it.

Authors of the chapter, Joe C. Martin and Brandy N. Frisby, both faculty members in instructional communication at Kentucky, surveyed student and professors involved in the reading program, and the faculty members in particular had widely varied responses to the institution's warning. One professor was pragmatic, for example, saying if it helps students, it can't hurt. Another expressed concern that if a student asked for an alternate reading assignment due to a personal experience with rape, any professor would have to report the alleged assault due to mandated reporter policies applicable to faculty members.

Martin and Frisby conclude that for those working in academic contexts, "regardless of their opinion on such warnings (or even their willingness to use them at all), cannot avoid the reality of trigger warnings." While the future of trigger warnings isn't yet clear, they say, "their influence in this present moment is clearly apparent."

Pinky Hota, an assistant professor of anthropology at Smith College, meanwhile, argues that the harshest critiques of trigger warnings draw gendered connections between emotional language and the language of trauma, "thereby attempting a pejorative feminization of minority speakers who dare lay claim to pasts marked by historical oppression and reducing structural and political injury to individual pathology." She recalls the harsh criticism Smith’s students received for protesting the planned 2014 commencement address by Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, for example. After Lagarde backed out to preserve the “celebratory” spirit of the day, Hota says that students’ potentially legitimate criticisms of IMF policy were disregarded by critics who sough to portray “academic freedom and free speech as dangerously compromised on American campuses.” Ultimately, Hota doesn't endorse trigger warnings or reject them, but asks whether colleges and universities should train students to withstand "masculinist liberal ideals" against trigger warnings or instead craft new feminist pedagogical practices (which would, presumably, welcome such warnings).

Hota said via email that she wanted to contribute to Knox’s book both to play “devil’s advocate” on trigger warnings and to challenge her own thinking about them. She has the same goal for readers.

“I want people to critically interrogate their assumptions about trigger warnings as merely another symptom of the endemic vulnerability of our students, in a higher education climate characterized by the grooming of students as consumers while critiquing them for being wholly apolitical,” she said. “I want readers to contemplate trigger warnings as the starting point of thinking of new and emergent forms of politics on campuses, that invite us to interrogate normative and long-cherished liberal ideals such as free speech.”

Kristina Ruiz-Mesa, an assistant professor of communication studies at California State University, Los Angeles, who co-wrote a chapter advocating trigger warnings, had a similar perspective -- albeit from a personal standpoint, not a political one.

“I often hear arguments claiming that trigger warnings are just another way to coddle students, and I think that this is an incredibly limited perspective,” she told Inside Higher Ed, “and one that casts instructors as toughening agents rather than educators. It’s not my job to toughen up students, it is my job to teach them. For many students, life experiences have made them tougher than we know.”

Noting that her classes include student speeches on everything from gun control to assault, Ruiz-Mesa said she sees trigger warnings “as a teaching tool to help minimize psychological noise that can disrupt student learning.”

New Books About Higher EducationEditorial Tags: TeachingIs this diversity newsletter?: Newsletter Order: 0Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

U of Central Florida reinstates student suspended over tweet

Inside HigherEd - Thu, 07/20/2017 - 07:00

Nick Lutz, a University of Central Florida student who was recently suspended for two semesters over a tweet he posted about an ex-girlfriend, had his punishment overturned Wednesday, as coverage here and elsewhere left many criticizing both Lutz and the university.

Lutz’s tweet, which went viral, mocked the grammar of a letter his ex-girlfriend sent him, and he gave the writing and composition a D-minus. He was later suspended, drawing in lawyers who argued First Amendment and due process rights were at stake.

Lutz’s lawyer, Jacob Stuart, said that Lutz’s letter did not identify the woman in question, who is not a student at UCF. The woman had filed a cyberbullying complaint with the local sheriff's office, but prosecutors declined to move forward. Stuart also said the precedent set by the punishment would allow UCF to troll all of its students’ social media posts, and that the original findings by the disciplinary board changed after the lawyer sent an appeal, raising due process concerns. (UCF credited the change to a technical error and extended the opportunity to submit another appeal.)

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a legal advocacy group that aggressively pursues what it sees as First Amendment issues on college campuses, had been reviewing the case.

“I was really surprised and thankful for UCF taking the immediate action that they did,” said Stuart, who added that the university should be commended for its reversal. “It’s unfortunate that a lawyer was needed … that should still be concerning.”

UCF officials declined to comment, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The letter announcing the reversal of Lutz’s suspension was provided by Lutz’s lawyer, and said that a punishment could still be delivered if there were appropriate grounds identified. Lutz had been suspended for violating the student conduct code, specifically regarding bullying and disruptive conduct.

“Specifically, the charges brought forward in this case were not supported by the original documentation received,” Adrienne Otto Frame, UCF associate vice president and dean of students, said in the letter. “I hereby remand the case to the Office of Student Conduct for a new hearing with new charges, if appropriate charges are identified.”

Stuart was confident the ruling would stand.

“We’re not out of the woods yet, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction,” he said.

Editorial Tags: Social media/networkingIs this diversity newsletter?: Newsletter Order: 0Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

Excess credit hour policies increase student debt

Inside HigherEd - Thu, 07/20/2017 - 07:00

For years now states have been adopting various policies that work to push students to complete their degrees.

But one of those policies may be adding to student debt and harming low-income students.

A new policy analysis published by the American Educational Research Association today in the Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis journal finds that state-adopted "excess credit hour" policies show little evidence of promoting completion and do more to increase median student debt.

Excess credit hour policies assess a tuition surcharge for any credits taken beyond a predetermined threshold. For example, Arizona charges a fee of 120 percent of the tuition rate if students cross 145 credits at four-year universities, with the assumption that most programs can be completed with 120 credits. On the other hand, Florida’s fee is 200 percent of the tuition rate if students cross 110 percent of their program of study at any of the state’s two- and four-year institutions.

The researchers found that four years after states adopted excess credit policies, overall median student debt increased between 5.7 percent and 7.2 percent. And the impact of those policies on student debt was concentrated among low- and middle-income students.

The researchers realized that student debt could be increasing in these states because of an information gap between state policy makers and individual students.

“Students are only exposed to the policy when they’re close to the threshold, and at that point, it becomes too hard to make a substantive change to their degree program,” said Dennis Kramer, a professor of higher education at the University of Florida and the report’s co-author. “These policies also shift the cost burden from the states to the individual students.”

A typical bachelor’s degree program takes 120 credit hours to achieve, but of the states with excess credit policies the fee thresholds average 145 credits, and students may not learn about the policy until they get to around 130 credit hours, Kramer said.

“We do think there is an opportunity for these policies to become enhanced by robust advising and degree planning,” he said.

But states need to find a balance between encouraging students to complete their degrees in a timely manner, while also allowing them the flexibility to explore multiple disciplines and get a liberal education, Kramer said.

“If four-year completion rates were going up and debt was going up, that may not be as bad of an outcome,” said Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education at Seton Hall University and the report’s co-author. “But we’re not seeing an increase in completion, just debt.”

The researchers found marginal evidence that, after excess credit policies began, the six-year graduation rate for Latino students increased between 2.5 percent and 3.4 percent. However, the six-year graduation rate for black students dropped between 3.5 percent and 4.2 percent.

Other states, like Indiana, have also adopted policies to decrease students' time to completion, like the 15 to Finish model -- which pushes students to take at least 15 credits per semester, with the ultimate goal that students complete their bachelor’s degrees on time.

But there’s a difference between incentive models like 15 to Finish and those described as more punitive, like excess credit policies.

“We are completely opposed to anything that increases costs for students,” said Dhanfu Elston, vice president of strategy, guided pathways and purpose first for Complete College America, which promotes 15 to Finish. “We never want to see an environment where students are penalized or a punitive policy fails to address the issues that lead to excess credits, and that was the spirit behind 15 to Finish.”

But as more states move toward performance-funding policies and focusing on metrics and outcomes, they’re looking to use incentives as a carrot to get students to a degree.

Kelchen said 15 to Finish can become punitive for students, however, if states set policies where they lose their financial aid if they don’t achieve the 15 credits.

“But 15 to Finish doesn’t mean students finish closer to 120 credits -- they just have to take 30 credits a year to stay on track,” he said.

And students are more aware of how many credits they need to achieve a degree if they’re keeping track of them semester to semester, Kramer said, adding that a student in their first or second year of college isn’t worried about having excess credits -- that comes when they’re close to that barrier.

“We’re not advocating for these policies to go away,” Kramer said. “We’re hoping for opportunities to enhance these policies. Most higher education scholars would agree providing incentives for students to complete their degree in a timely fashion is a good thing.”

State PolicyEditorial Tags: Financial aidResearchIs this diversity newsletter?: Newsletter Order: 0Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 
Syndicate content