Thursday, September 24, 2009

Two higher ed stories on NPR

On my drive home from work yesterday, I caught two higher ed stories on All Things Considered. That's quite a feat, considering that my commute is only 7-8 minutes (I had to have a "driveway moment" to catch the end of the second story). The first story was about the resignation of Joseph White, the soon-to-be former president of the University of Illinois system. You may have heard that UI has been wracked by a scandal over the admission of politically-connected students, whose names were forwarded by legislators and other government officials to a special UI admissions list. While the university's press release didn't explicitly mention the scandal, it's quite clear that it played a role in White's resignation.

We all know that Illinois is a hotbed of political corruption (witness former Governor Rod Blagojevich's attempt to sell President Obama's senate seat), but is what went on at U. Illinois unique or standard practice at more public universities than we'd expect? I suspect that politically-connected admissions occur at many of these institutions, though probably not as blatantly as with a special list as existed at UI. More likely it occurs in a quiet phone call from a legislative or executive office to the government relations office in a university. Undoubtedly, many of these young men and women would have qualified for admission on their own, but the phone call is placed just to ensure that everything goes smoothly.

This reminds me of a situation I encountered in my own career; the circumstances are somewhat different, but it still speaks to the role of political influence over institutions. I won't say at which institution this occurred, but you can check my CV to get the list of four public universities at which I've taught. I will provide the caveat that some of this information came to me second hand, but from a reliable source. I had a state representative as a non-degree student in one of my classes, and after that semester he applied to the doctoral program in which I was teaching. But the program had a certain set of requirements that this individual did not fulfill, so he was turned down for admission. A short time after the notification was sent out, a phone call came from the campus chief executive's office indicating that the state representative should be admitted, which he subsequently was.

The second story was the one that kept me in the driveway to hear the ending. The story described the faculty walkout scheduled for today at the ten campuses of the U. of California to protest the furloughs, budget cuts, and tuition increases imposed by the UC system. UC employees are being furloughed for 11-26 days (which equates to a 4% to 10% pay cut) [corrected after original posting], and faculty have been told they can't take their furlough on days they are teaching. The faculty want the right to be able to distribute the furlough days over their three main areas of service: teaching, research, and service. The argument is that by allowing some classes to be missed, the impact will be more obvious to students and administrators.

I believe that the organizers of the walkout honestly do have the interests of students and the quality of education they receive at heart, and in the NPR story one of the organizers did a good job articulating this. But I suspect that their perspective will engender little sympathy from the general public, most of whom likely have an image of faculty - especially those at UC, who are on average the most highly-paid among the three public sectors in California - as being well compensated for the work they do. Given what others outside of the academy are facing in the economic downturn, I doubt that few of them will be marching behind the UC faculty.

While the term "professor" is very broad-ranging in this country, including everything from very well-compensated, tenured professors at elite research universities, to "beltway bandit" adjuncts who struggle to make a living teaching five or more courses a semester across multiple institutions, it is likely the former image that most of the general public have in their minds when they think about "professors." We probably have to do a better job of public relations if we hope to garner additional support for higher education among the general public, and an even better job if we want more support for faculty working conditions in general.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A questionable strategy for increasing university revenues

This week's Sunday Times of London had an interesting article about a movement on the part of some British universities to increase revenues by accepting more overseas students. "Overseas" in the British universities means non-European Union students, as EU students get treated the same as British students for tuition and tuition loan purposes. Thus, increasing the proportion of overseas students at the expense of British students is a way to increase revenues. The suggestion came from the incoming chairman of the Russell Group, roughly equivalent to the Association of American Universities here in the U.S.

This strategy is akin to those U.S. public universities which increase the proportion of out-of-state students, who generally pay much higher tuition rates than resident students. For example, out-of-state freshmen students entering Penn State's flagship campus at University Park this year pay 85% higher tuition than Pennsylvania residents ($25,134 vs. $13,604, and this doesn't include mandatory fees, which are the same for resident and non-resident students). Many U.S. universities try to keep it quiet if they increase the proportion of out-of-state students, as they don't want to send a signal that they're favoring these students at the expense of residents (whose families subsidize the tuition rate through the state appropriation received by public universities). Some states cap the proportion of students who can come from out-of-state, but many provide leeway to the public universities to decide for themselves.

What is particularly interesting about the British situation is that the universities are apparently being very upfront about their decision, and appear to be unafraid of any backlash from either the government or the public. They've used the rationale that they will likely be facing large cuts (up to 25%) in the general support they receive from the government. That leaves them with few options other than to admit more overseas students, who at most universities pay at least three times the current tuition of £3,225 paid by British students. It will be interesting to see whether the Russell Group universities will move forward with this plan.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The high cost of higher education

I was a guest today on WHYY's (Philadelphia) Radio Times talk show with Marty Moss-Coane. You can stream an MP3 or download it from the show website; my segment starts at 34:45 into the show.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

President Obama and socialist indoctrination

As you likely have heard, President Obama will be giving a video address directly to schools on Tuesday. The focus of his remarks will be on "on the importance of taking responsibility for their [students] success in school." Last Thursday, the first day of schools in the State College Area School District, I learned from some friends in the district that the superintendent had decided to leave it up to individual teachers whether to show the broadcast or not in their classes. If so, I was told, teachers had to allow students to opt out if they or their parents did not want them to participate.

Curious about why this decision had been made, I sent an email Thursday evening to the superintendent, Richard Mextorf, with copies to the school board members. Dr. Mextorf is new to the district, having been in the job for about six months. I've pasted below the full record, recognizing that this gets a bit lengthy, but in the interest of not censoring or selectively editing what he had to say. I should go on record as saying that I would have written him exactly the same email if it had been President Bush rather than Obama.

My email to him, Thursday evening:
Dr. Mextorf:

I have heard from other parents that the district will be requiring written parental permission for students to hear President Obama’s speech on education to the nation’s children next Tuesday. I understand that sometimes rumors about misinformation get started, but if the parental permission requirement is in fact true, I want to let you know how disappointed I am in this decision. I have read the advance information about the president’s speech, and I simply cannot understand how listening to the president exhort children to work harder in school can be considered controversial enough to require parental permission for students’ participation. Given the timing, with the Labor Day holiday on Monday, I think it will be difficult for many parents to provide the required consent. As a parent of two children in the district, as well as a researcher and teacher of educational policy, I find this decision potentially very disturbing.

If this is in fact the district’s decision regarding this activity, I hope you will provide me with an explanation of why the decision was made, and how parents and other community members were included in the decision making process. Thank you in advance for your assistance.

Dr. Donald E. Heller
College Township

His reply Friday morning:
Dear Dr. Heller:

Thank you for the opportunity to address your concern:
1. Viewing the address will be at the discretion of the teacher, depending on relevance to the curriculum.
2. Students must be allowed to opt out of the address, with an alternative activity being provided during that time.
3. A link to the address will be provided on our website for those who did not have the opportunity to view the address
4. Permission slips are not required for this activity.


Richard J. Mextorf
Superintendent of Schools
State College Area School District

Since he didn't address the "why" aspect of my question, I sent this reply:
Dr. Mextor: Thanks for your quick reply and clarification of the opt out procedure. I still would like to know why the president’s speech has been identified as an “opt out” activity, however. For example, we don’t normally provide an opportunity for students to opt out of a discussion of the Pythagorean theorem in geometry class, or a discussion of the framing of the U.S. Constitution in U.S. History class, so I wonder why the president’s speech seems to have been singled out in this fashion.

One high school student has reported to me that his teacher told the class that they would be able to watch the speech only if everyone in the class agreed to do so; if one student decided to opt out, then this would remove the opportunity for the class to watch the speech together (and I fully recognize that teenagers are on occasion somewhat erroneous in what they report back on what happens in school). I know that your office cannot control what each teacher does in the classroom, but this example is also troublesome. While providing the students the opportunity to watch the speech at a later time on the district website is an alternative, this will not allow for class discussion between teachers and students of the president’s speech. The opportunity to have a guided discussion about the president’s speech and the issues he raises about American education can be a valuable civics lesson for all students.

My concern is that providing students with the opt out option identifies this as a “controversial” activity along the lines of others, such as health education, that students (and parents) are normally provided with an opportunity to opt out of. I do not understand why this speech by the president is seen as controversial enough to be flagged as an opt out activity. So if you could explain why it has been, and the procedure behind the decision, I would appreciate it.

Thanks again.

Don Heller

His response, within an hour:
Dr. Heller:

We have had stakeholders weigh-in on both sides of the issue; some have suggested that, if we mandate that students must view the address, we are forcing children to be subjected to socialism reminiscent of the former Soviet Union. Others suggest we are shirking our civic responsibility if we do not see to it that all children view the address.

I made the decision to let individual teachers decide, based on their judgment about relevance to the curriculum on that day and at that time. I trust our teachers as professionals to make responsible decisions regarding viewing the address. The opt out is to allow parents to decide for their child. The link to the website is to make it easier for parents to view the message with their child, should they not have an opportunity to do so in school.

Thank you for your sensitivity regarding the information from the high school student. In situations such as this, I find it beneficial to give the teacher the benefit of the doubt that I do not have all the information, the proper context, or that the information is part of a bigger picture.

The guidelines I established were to give teachers the opportunity to make an informed, professional judgment, to allow parents the right to remove their child if desired, and for parents and students to have access to the address if they did not have opportunity to do so at school.


Richard J. Mextorf
Superintendent of Schools
State College Area School District

At that point I decided to bring the dialogue to a close:
I appreciate your sharing the explanation of the process. As one who teaches the politics of education, I’m very sensitive to the pressures you face on issues like this, and the difficulty of trying to please everyone.

Don Heller

As one friend wrote to me after I posted the correspondence on Facebook, "He's punting, and I am *completely* unimpressed by him." I'm sure the superintendent received complaints from some parents, and he probably decided that the path of least resistance was to allow an opt out. So this can be interpreted as a punt, for sure. As I wrote to him, I am sympathetic to the situation he is put in. With the caveat that I have never met the man, and know little about him (the search and his appointment occurred while we were in London earlier this year, so I didn't follow it at all), I doubt that he believes that Obama's speech is an attempt at "forcing children to be subjected to socialism reminiscent of the former Soviet Union." I'm sure he was relating what he had been hearing from some parents. I would imagine and hope that if he had been around a while longer, and had developed more political capital (both with the community as well as his board), he may have been willing to stand up to these parents. The district's website has nothing about this decision, so for the great majority of parents, all they may know about it (if anything at all) is any materials the teachers may have sent home with the children.

In theory, I imagine the district will allow a parent to opt their child out of pretty much any part of their education. But as I wrote to him, singling out this activity - and giving it that attention - sends the wrong message to teachers, students, and parents. There has been nothing that I have seen in the advance publicity about this speech, either from the White House itself, or in the news reports about it, that Obama will be talking about anything controversial. Nevertheless, conservative talk radio and the ever-vigilant Fox News have been raising the "indoctrination" flag and urging parents to boycott the speech.  Here's one good editorial in the LA Times about it, and here's the chairman of the Florida Republican Party ranting about Obama's speech (just proving once again that sage statement by Mark Twain, "Better to keep one's mouth shut and be thought a fool, then to open it and remove all doubt").

I frequently have both school administrators and teachers in my classes, and we talk a lot about the difficulty of navigating political controversies in the schools. This is one example, however, where I would like to see the district leadership show more guts and be proactive in standing up to the political right.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Podcast on the economic crisis and financial aid

I recorded a podcast recently with USC's Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice on the impact of the economic crisis on financial aid. You can listen to it here.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A refreshing endowment story

There has been much coverage in the press about the decline in endowment values at many of the country's wealthy universities, and the impact it has had on their operations (here's just one example). But here's a nice story about Cooper Union, which saw its endowment decline by less than 3% in the first half of the year that ended June 30, and expects the value to be flat by the end of that year.

Cooper Union is unusual in that it charges no tuition to its students (similar to Berea College, in Kentucky), so it is dependent upon its endowment to subsidize more than two-third of its operating budget. Granted, Cooper Union benefits from owning the land on which the Chrysler Building in New York sits, but it also exercised prudent endowment management that shunned some of the exotic investments that got other institutions into trouble.