Amid budget deficits and unfavorable demographics, Oberlin pushes to do more with less

Facing challenging finances and a demographic cliff, Ohio’s Oberlin College is mulling a strategic plan that would trim 100 students from its renowned music conservatory while adding the same number to its liberal arts program.

The shift, which would take place slowly, over four years, would bring the conservatory’s enrollment to around 480. It would also create a brand-new minor in music for liberal arts students, who often show up with musical interests but little interest in a music career. Oberlin would offer these students conservatory classes and private lessons, as well as the opportunity to perform with conservatory students.

College officials say the moves would make the conservatory more competitive. For one thing, they would technically shrink it, offering fewer slots for top musicians. They would also allow Oberlin to capture musically inclined students who nonetheless want to major in the liberal arts — the college’s data on recently admitted applicants to the liberal arts program show that nearly 80 percent of applicants who list music performance as a field of primary or secondary interest end up enrolling elsewhere, despite the presence of the acclaimed conservatory on the same campus.

The changes are aimed at “ensuring Oberlin’s long-term resiliency” in an uncertain time for both liberal arts colleges and music conservatories, said President Carmen Twillie Ambar.

Oberlin predicts that the shift would also bring in millions more in revenue. As recently as 2017, the liberal arts program saw net revenues of $23.9 million, while the conservatory lost $11.1 million.

That’s not because of different tuition rates — the two programs are priced identically, college officials said. But conservatory students bring in about $10,000 less, on average, since the two schools are in search of different pools of students. To be competitive among other conservatories, Oberlin must offer these prospective students more aid than it does liberal arts students, who are enrolled in what’s officially known as Oberlin’s Arts & Sciences program.

Officials predict the change could produce an estimated $1 million in new revenues annually, beginning in year four of the plan.

The change would need approval by Oberlin’s Board of Trustees, which is expected to vote on it at its June meeting.

“If this is how you keep financial aid intact, and you continue to work on the most important initiatives you have going on, then maybe it’s the right thing to do.” — alumna Linda Holmes (’93)

In an interview, Ambar said many “extremely talented” musicians don’t choose the conservatory because they don’t see themselves performing professionally. “We haven’t captured enough of those students because we can’t give them enough access to the conservatory to enhance those abilities,” she said. Doing that won’t dilute the quality of instruction — even the student musicians say that “hasn’t been a concern that they’ve expressed” during the process.

“Yes, our conservatory’s students perform at an extremely high level — they’re entering the profession, absolutely. But there is a nice, robust group of Arts & Sciences students who will be able to mesh with those students in ways that will enhance this experience.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, alumni say they hate to see the conservatory shrink, but they see both sides of the debate.

Linda Holmes, a 1993 liberal arts graduate who hosts NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, said she hasn’t followed Oberlin’s financial travails closely enough to second-guess “people who have put this kind of work into coming up with recommendations.” But she said she’d be sad to see the conservatory — and the number of people who each year earn degrees there — shrink. “At the same time, it always gives me comfort that everything that happens at Oberlin is argued over endlessly, to the point where if there are other options to prevent this, they’ll be brought to the forefront.”

Holmes, whose first novel appears in June, said she “loved being on a campus that was shared with a music school. It enriched my life so much to know musicians — some of my close friends were either conservatory students or double degree. I don’t relish any reduction in the size of the conservatory. But I also don’t relish seeing the school struggle in the long term. If this is how you keep financial aid intact, and you continue to work on the most important initiatives you have going on, then maybe it’s the right thing to do. But I trust them to fight it out. That’s kind of classic Oberlin.”

Ziya Smallens, 2016 liberal arts graduate who works as a political speechwriter with West Wing Writers in New York City, similarly said he is weighing the proposal’s pros and cons. An amateur musician himself, he recalled applying for a conservatory class that required passing a vocal skills test. He balked at the test and never took the class. As painful as that was, he thinks Oberlin was correct to demand top-notch musical skills. “It would have been lovely” to take the class, he said, “but those opportunities should not come at the cost of preventing would-be musicians from entering the conservatory.”

Terry Hsieh, a Beijing-based multi-instrumentalist who earned bachelor’s degrees in Chinese and jazz performance at Oberlin in 2012, said he hadn’t seen the proposal. But he said he hopes Oberlin “can continue to leverage its strength in the higher ed world: producing both talented and creative liberal arts and sciences graduates and professional-level musicians who make a sustained impact in the world of music.”

Needed: More Revenue

Like many other small private colleges, Oberlin faces challenging financial times ahead. In addition to structural deficits that could last several years if unaddressed, Ambar said, Oberlin is confronting the reality of smaller numbers of high school graduates in the Northeast that puts it at a distinct disadvantage, since unlike many larger colleges, it primarily serves traditional-age students.

The extra revenue from more liberal arts students can’t come fast enough. Last June, the board approved a $160 million budget that included a projected $4.7 million deficit. Without making cuts, the college’s deficit could have been as high as $9 million this year, an “unsustainable” figure that would hamper Oberlin’s ability to offer financial aid “and to invest in our faculty, staff and campus,” college officials said in an open letter to campus.

Ambar, along with Chris Canavan, Oberlin’s board chair, and Chesley Maddox-Dorsey, the vice chair, said the college last year raised enrollment. “But we’ve also had to contribute more financial aid, so the net revenue gain from improved enrollment has been modest. In other words, we are exhausting our pricing power,” they wrote.

For new students, fall 2019 tuition and fees, along with room and board, are expected to be $73,694.

Raising tuition, they said, “only increases the demand for financial aid. It also adds to the financial strains on our students and their families, making it harder for us to keep them at Oberlin from the day they matriculate to the day they graduate. This weighs heavily on Oberlin’s finances.”

The college has said that if it doesn’t trim expenses, Oberlin’s deficit could reach $162 million within a decade. It relies on net student income for 83 percent of operating revenue.

In its most recent audited financial statement, Oberlin said 97 employees took voluntary buyouts in 2016, with another 17 in 2018. It reported $184 million of outstanding bonded debt.

With an $887.4 million endowment last year, 186-year-old Oberlin is wealthier than most small private institutions, but far behind its wealthier peers — colleges like Amherst, Swarthmore and Wellesley all reported endowments at or near $2 billion. For the past few years, Oberlin has drawn about 5 percent of its endowment for operating expenses, a standard distribution. Last year, that amounted to about $44.1 million.

In a widely circulated October 2017 letter, Canavan, the board chair, said a group of trustees examining the college’s finances concluded that “we lean too heavily on cash from generosity (past and present gifts, and borrowing against future gifts) and not enough on cash from operations (tuition, room and board).”

He said Oberlin has many generous donors. “But they’re not generous enough to insulate us from the ups and downs of enrollment and retention, or from the broader socioeconomic trends that make it harder for families to afford Oberlin. The conclusion may seem self-evident, but it’s important nevertheless: we can’t stop appealing to generous donors, we need to find ways to boost our operating revenues and we have to reduce our cash needs where possible.”

Oberlin remains selective, said Ambar, but it’s “still facing those same headwinds” as other liberal arts colleges.

Looking back over the past decade, the conservatory’s application numbers peaked in 2017, with 1,396 applications, up from a low of 1,189 in 2014. Last year, 1,256 prospective students applied. Of those, 33 percent were admitted, up slightly from 28 percent in 2017.

The New England Conservatory of Music in Boston had a slightly higher acceptance rate at 33 percent in 2017, according to the most recent federal data. At the Juilliard School in New York City, just 6 percent of applicants were admitted in 2017, federal data show.

While last fall’s enrolled conservatory students had higher average SAT scores than in recent years, Oberlin’s liberal arts students had mixed scores.

Oberlin’s selectivity in the college of liberal arts has dropped slightly: in 2018, it admitted 39 percent of applicants. As recently as 2016, its acceptance rate stood at just 29 percent.

By way of comparison, Amherst College admitted just 13 percent of applicants in 2017. Middlebury last year admitted about 19 percent. Carleton College in Minnesota admitted about 20 percent, an admissions official said.

“To say that they’re being prepared just to show up to be the first violinist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is a very narrow view of what their career path will be.” — Oberlin president Carmen Twillie Ambar

Oberlin’s yield, in both the conservatory and the college of liberal arts, has shrunk: the conservatory enrolled 42 percent of admitted students in 2009. Last year, that dropped to 33 percent. In the college of liberal arts, yield dropped from 32 percent to 29 percent. Enrollment last fall totaled 2,785, about what it was a decade earlier.

C. Todd Jones, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio (AICUO), said he was impressed with how the college is going about the strategic process. “The beauty of what Oberlin is doing here is addressing the problem before it becomes a crisis. And that’s leadership,” he said.

It’s clear that college officials have looked at the conservatory “in the context of the whole operation” and are trying to “make adjustments that are true to the overall mission of the institution, while looking at the dollars and cents of how it operates.”

Officials foresee conservatory faculty, facing smaller enrollments, being freed up to offer “greater and more meaningful musical experiences” to liberal arts students — collaborating with faculty across campus in interdisciplinary performances, for instance.

David Kamitsuka, dean of the liberal arts college, said the goal is to provide a more integrated experience that connects classroom work with experiential learning, likely in the form of more internships. Students come to Oberlin because they’re interested in a classical education, he said, “but they want pathways for that classical education to launch them into meaningful lives.”

William Quillen, the conservatory’s acting dean, said, “Every conservatory is having this conversation.” The realities of being a professional musician are “completely different from the world of 2010 or 2000, let alone 1980,” he said. “What we offer them in 2020 has to be different — and will invariably, and must be different, from what we offered them 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago.”

While today’s conservatory graduates must play their instruments with the same technical mastery as always — and with broad knowledge of classical repertoire — they must also be able to perform in other musical styles and in different settings such as in film, animation and videogame soundtracks. “And on top of that, they have to have an entrepreneurial disposition,” he said, a set of skills that musicians simply didn’t need a generation ago.

“They’re being asked to do radically different work,” Ambar said. “To say that they’re being prepared just to show up to be the first violinist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is a very narrow view of what their career path will be.”

She said conservatories “have to be prepared for an industry that’s changing more rapidly than health care has changed. What it will look like we don’t know, but we think we’re on the right track in helping our students prepare for the unknown.”

A Way to Differentiate Itself

Among other proposals, Oberlin is considering shrinking the size of its campus to save on utility costs and deferred maintenance, as well as introducing new majors such as business and global health.

AICUO’s Jones said he can’t recall another instance in which he has seen “a deeper engagement of various stakeholders, while simultaneously being very public about numbers and about the effects of policies. I just don’t see that very often with processes like these at campuses.”

He’s not surprised that’s taking place at Oberlin, a college known for inclusivity. Founded in 1833, it was coeducational from the beginning and began admitting African American students two years later.

The open process is “true to the culture of the place,” Jones said. “I’m looking forward to the results of it, because colleges learn from each other. And the experience here, if it’s successful — and I expect it to be so — it is one that’s likely to be drawn upon by other institutions going forward.”

Michael Emerson Dirda, a 2009 graduate who majored in English and history, said many students choose Oberlin because “while they may not be conservatory-caliber musicians themselves, they still love playing music, learning about music and being surrounded by music. If the enrollment changes are able to free up resources for such students and otherwise bridge the gap between college and conservatory, this could be a useful way for Oberlin to differentiate itself from similar liberal arts institutions.”

NPR’s Holmes, who is also a former attorney, said she’s more concerned about what seems a bid by Oberlin to reconsider hourly workers’ pay. “That worries me a little,” she said.

The college says that while many faculty salaries fall below those of peer institutions, Oberlin’s hourly workers earn “significantly higher wages than their counterparts” at four nearby liberal arts colleges. Oberlin’s average hourly staff wage is 34 percent higher than at Kenyon, Dennison, Ohio Wesleyan and Wooster Colleges.

“I don’t want to see the school in a race to the bottom with hourly wages — although again, I feel weird second-guessing, because they’ve put some study into this, and it’s not like they’re likely to be leaving chests full of money they could just open up and empty out,” Holmes said. “It’s just hard. It’s painful. Oberlin for me was weird and intense and serious and sometimes kind of aggravating, but there’s nothing quite like it. I think that’s probably still the case, even as they tackle this.”

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Facing challenging finances and a demographic cliff, Ohio's Oberlin College is mulling a strategic plan that would trim 100 students from its renowned music conservatory while adding the same number to its liberal arts program.

The shift, which would take place slowly, over four years, would bring the conservatory’s enrollment to around 480. It would also create a brand-new minor in music for liberal arts students, who often show up with musical interests but little interest in a music career. Oberlin would offer these students conservatory classes and private lessons, as well as the opportunity to perform with conservatory students.

College officials say the moves would make the conservatory more competitive. For one thing, they would technically shrink it, offering fewer slots for top musicians. They would also allow Oberlin to capture musically inclined students who nonetheless want to major in the liberal arts -- the college’s data on recently admitted applicants to the liberal arts program show that nearly 80 percent of applicants who list music performance as a field of primary or secondary interest end up enrolling elsewhere, despite the presence of the acclaimed conservatory on the same campus.

The changes are aimed at “ensuring Oberlin’s long-term resiliency” in an uncertain time for both liberal arts colleges and music conservatories, said President Carmen Twillie Ambar.

Oberlin predicts that the shift would also bring in millions more in revenue. As recently as 2017, the liberal arts program saw net revenues of $23.9 million, while the conservatory lost $11.1 million.

That’s not because of different tuition rates -- the two programs are priced identically, college officials said. But conservatory students bring in about $10,000 less, on average, since the two schools are in search of different pools of students. To be competitive among other conservatories, Oberlin must offer these prospective students more aid than it does liberal arts students, who are enrolled in what's officially known as Oberlin's Arts & Sciences program.

Officials predict the change could produce an estimated $1 million in new revenues annually, beginning in year four of the plan.

The change would need approval by Oberlin's Board of Trustees, which is expected to vote on it at its June meeting.

"If this is how you keep financial aid intact, and you continue to work on the most important initiatives you have going on, then maybe it's the right thing to do." -- alumna Linda Holmes ('93)

In an interview, Ambar said many “extremely talented” musicians don’t choose the conservatory because they don’t see themselves performing professionally. “We haven’t captured enough of those students because we can’t give them enough access to the conservatory to enhance those abilities,” she said. Doing that won’t dilute the quality of instruction -- even the student musicians say that “hasn’t been a concern that they’ve expressed” during the process.

“Yes, our conservatory’s students perform at an extremely high level -- they’re entering the profession, absolutely. But there is a nice, robust group of Arts & Sciences students who will be able to mesh with those students in ways that will enhance this experience.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, alumni say they hate to see the conservatory shrink, but they see both sides of the debate.

Linda Holmes, a 1993 liberal arts graduate who hosts NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, said she hasn't followed Oberlin's financial travails closely enough to second-guess "people who have put this kind of work into coming up with recommendations." But she said she'd be sad to see the conservatory -- and the number of people who each year earn degrees there -- shrink. "At the same time, it always gives me comfort that everything that happens at Oberlin is argued over endlessly, to the point where if there are other options to prevent this, they'll be brought to the forefront."

Holmes, whose first novel appears in June, said she "loved being on a campus that was shared with a music school. It enriched my life so much to know musicians -- some of my close friends were either conservatory students or double degree. I don't relish any reduction in the size of the conservatory. But I also don't relish seeing the school struggle in the long term. If this is how you keep financial aid intact, and you continue to work on the most important initiatives you have going on, then maybe it's the right thing to do. But I trust them to fight it out. That's kind of classic Oberlin."

Ziya Smallens, 2016 liberal arts graduate who works as a political speechwriter with West Wing Writers in New York City, similarly said he is weighing the proposal's pros and cons. An amateur musician himself, he recalled applying for a conservatory class that required passing a vocal skills test. He balked at the test and never took the class. As painful as that was, he thinks Oberlin was correct to demand top-notch musical skills. "It would have been lovely" to take the class, he said, "but those opportunities should not come at the cost of preventing would-be musicians from entering the conservatory."

Terry Hsieh, a Beijing-based multi-instrumentalist who earned bachelor's degrees in Chinese and jazz performance at Oberlin in 2012, said he hadn't seen the proposal. But he said he hopes Oberlin “can continue to leverage its strength in the higher ed world: producing both talented and creative liberal arts and sciences graduates and professional-level musicians who make a sustained impact in the world of music.”

Needed: More Revenue

Like many other small private colleges, Oberlin faces challenging financial times ahead. In addition to structural deficits that could last several years if unaddressed, Ambar said, Oberlin is confronting the reality of smaller numbers of high school graduates in the Northeast that puts it at a distinct disadvantage, since unlike many larger colleges, it primarily serves traditional-age students.

The extra revenue from more liberal arts students can’t come fast enough. Last June, the board approved a $160 million budget that included a projected $4.7 million deficit. Without making cuts, the college’s deficit could have been as high as $9 million this year, an "unsustainable" figure that would hamper Oberlin's ability to offer financial aid "and to invest in our faculty, staff and campus," college officials said in an open letter to campus.

Ambar, along with Chris Canavan, Oberlin’s board chair, and Chesley Maddox-Dorsey, the vice chair, said the college last year raised enrollment. "But we’ve also had to contribute more financial aid, so the net revenue gain from improved enrollment has been modest. In other words, we are exhausting our pricing power," they wrote.

For new students, fall 2019 tuition and fees, along with room and board, are expected to be $73,694.

Raising tuition, they said, "only increases the demand for financial aid. It also adds to the financial strains on our students and their families, making it harder for us to keep them at Oberlin from the day they matriculate to the day they graduate. This weighs heavily on Oberlin’s finances."

The college has said that if it doesn’t trim expenses, Oberlin’s deficit could reach $162 million within a decade. It relies on net student income for 83 percent of operating revenue.

In its most recent audited financial statement, Oberlin said 97 employees took voluntary buyouts in 2016, with another 17 in 2018. It reported $184 million of outstanding bonded debt.

With an $887.4 million endowment last year, 186-year-old Oberlin is wealthier than most small private institutions, but far behind its wealthier peers -- colleges like Amherst, Swarthmore and Wellesley all reported endowments at or near $2 billion. For the past few years, Oberlin has drawn about 5 percent of its endowment for operating expenses, a standard distribution. Last year, that amounted to about $44.1 million.

In a widely circulated October 2017 letter, Canavan, the board chair, said a group of trustees examining the college’s finances concluded that “we lean too heavily on cash from generosity (past and present gifts, and borrowing against future gifts) and not enough on cash from operations (tuition, room and board).”

He said Oberlin has many generous donors. “But they’re not generous enough to insulate us from the ups and downs of enrollment and retention, or from the broader socioeconomic trends that make it harder for families to afford Oberlin. The conclusion may seem self-evident, but it’s important nevertheless: we can’t stop appealing to generous donors, we need to find ways to boost our operating revenues and we have to reduce our cash needs where possible.”

Oberlin remains selective, said Ambar, but it’s “still facing those same headwinds” as other liberal arts colleges.

Looking back over the past decade, the conservatory’s application numbers peaked in 2017, with 1,396 applications, up from a low of 1,189 in 2014. Last year, 1,256 prospective students applied. Of those, 33 percent were admitted, up slightly from 28 percent in 2017.

The New England Conservatory of Music in Boston had a slightly higher acceptance rate at 33 percent in 2017, according to the most recent federal data. At the Juilliard School in New York City, just 6 percent of applicants were admitted in 2017, federal data show.

While last fall’s enrolled conservatory students had higher average SAT scores than in recent years, Oberlin’s liberal arts students had mixed scores.

Oberlin's selectivity in the college of liberal arts has dropped slightly: in 2018, it admitted 39 percent of applicants. As recently as 2016, its acceptance rate stood at just 29 percent.

By way of comparison, Amherst College admitted just 13 percent of applicants in 2017. Middlebury last year admitted about 19 percent. Carleton College in Minnesota admitted about 20 percent, an admissions official said.

“To say that they’re being prepared just to show up to be the first violinist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is a very narrow view of what their career path will be.” -- Oberlin president Carmen Twillie Ambar

Oberlin's yield, in both the conservatory and the college of liberal arts, has shrunk: the conservatory enrolled 42 percent of admitted students in 2009. Last year, that dropped to 33 percent. In the college of liberal arts, yield dropped from 32 percent to 29 percent. Enrollment last fall totaled 2,785, about what it was a decade earlier.

C. Todd Jones, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Ohio (AICUO), said he was impressed with how the college is going about the strategic process. “The beauty of what Oberlin is doing here is addressing the problem before it becomes a crisis. And that’s leadership,” he said.

It's clear that college officials have looked at the conservatory "in the context of the whole operation" and are trying to "make adjustments that are true to the overall mission of the institution, while looking at the dollars and cents of how it operates."

Officials foresee conservatory faculty, facing smaller enrollments, being freed up to offer “greater and more meaningful musical experiences” to liberal arts students -- collaborating with faculty across campus in interdisciplinary performances, for instance.

David Kamitsuka, dean of the liberal arts college, said the goal is to provide a more integrated experience that connects classroom work with experiential learning, likely in the form of more internships. Students come to Oberlin because they’re interested in a classical education, he said, “but they want pathways for that classical education to launch them into meaningful lives.”

William Quillen, the conservatory’s acting dean, said, “Every conservatory is having this conversation.” The realities of being a professional musician are “completely different from the world of 2010 or 2000, let alone 1980,” he said. “What we offer them in 2020 has to be different -- and will invariably, and must be different, from what we offered them 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago.”

While today’s conservatory graduates must play their instruments with the same technical mastery as always -- and with broad knowledge of classical repertoire -- they must also be able to perform in other musical styles and in different settings such as in film, animation and videogame soundtracks. “And on top of that, they have to have an entrepreneurial disposition,” he said, a set of skills that musicians simply didn’t need a generation ago.

“They’re being asked to do radically different work,” Ambar said. “To say that they’re being prepared just to show up to be the first violinist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is a very narrow view of what their career path will be.”

She said conservatories “have to be prepared for an industry that’s changing more rapidly than health care has changed. What it will look like we don’t know, but we think we’re on the right track in helping our students prepare for the unknown.”

A Way to Differentiate Itself

Among other proposals, Oberlin is considering shrinking the size of its campus to save on utility costs and deferred maintenance, as well as introducing new majors such as business and global health.

AICUO's Jones said he can't recall another instance in which he has seen “a deeper engagement of various stakeholders, while simultaneously being very public about numbers and about the effects of policies. I just don’t see that very often with processes like these at campuses.”

He's not surprised that's taking place at Oberlin, a college known for inclusivity. Founded in 1833, it was coeducational from the beginning and began admitting African American students two years later.

The open process is “true to the culture of the place,” Jones said. “I’m looking forward to the results of it, because colleges learn from each other. And the experience here, if it’s successful -- and I expect it to be so -- it is one that’s likely to be drawn upon by other institutions going forward.”

Michael Emerson Dirda, a 2009 graduate who majored in English and history, said many students choose Oberlin because "while they may not be conservatory-caliber musicians themselves, they still love playing music, learning about music and being surrounded by music. If the enrollment changes are able to free up resources for such students and otherwise bridge the gap between college and conservatory, this could be a useful way for Oberlin to differentiate itself from similar liberal arts institutions."

NPR's Holmes, who is also a former attorney, said she's more concerned about what seems a bid by Oberlin to reconsider hourly workers' pay. "That worries me a little," she said.

The college says that while many faculty salaries fall below those of peer institutions, Oberlin's hourly workers earn "significantly higher wages than their counterparts" at four nearby liberal arts colleges. Oberlin’s average hourly staff wage is 34 percent higher than at Kenyon, Dennison, Ohio Wesleyan and Wooster Colleges.

"I don't want to see the school in a race to the bottom with hourly wages -- although again, I feel weird second-guessing, because they've put some study into this, and it's not like they're likely to be leaving chests full of money they could just open up and empty out," Holmes said. "It's just hard. It's painful. Oberlin for me was weird and intense and serious and sometimes kind of aggravating, but there's nothing quite like it. I think that's probably still the case, even as they tackle this."

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Advocates share war and success stories at ‘Inside Higher Ed’ event

WASHINGTON — General education is not simply filler for a student’s time in college beyond the major. Done well, gen ed can answer students’ questions about what college is, and why it matters.

Gen ed is also a great American contribution to higher education, affording students the time and space for intellectual exploration, and teaching them to learn to think in different ways.

Yet general education is under threat. Politicians question the value of it, specifically requirements that aren’t explicitly job oriented. Students don’t always get it. And creating and adopting a strong general education program demands much of already time- if not resource-strapped professors and their institutions.

Is gen ed worth the fight? Speakers at Wednesday’s Inside Higher Ed Leadership Series event, The Future of Gen Ed, think so. The sold-out all-day meeting, held at Gallup’s headquarters here, featured conversations on why general education matters more than ever, along with data-driven arguments for gen ed. Other speakers offered thoughts on challenges and lessons learned in their own institutions’ gen ed reforms, and whether diversity should be a program requirement.

‘A Common Commitment’

Geoffrey Harpham, visiting scholar and senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University and former president and director of the National Humanities Center, talked about the namesake figure of his 2018 book on the “golden age” of education, What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez?: The American Revolution in Education. Harpham once met a Mr. Ramirez (that’s a pseudonym) during a campus visit and described how general education transformed the man’s life.

Ramirez went from being a penniless Cuban refugee in 1960s Florida who spoke no English to a professor emeritus of comparative literature. The turning point was when he enrolled in a community college and was forced to take a course on Shakespeare. A professor asked him what he thought about some topic of discussion — the first time anyone had ever done so. Ramirez was too embarrassed to answer at the time, as he thought he had nothing to say and “no thoughts at all.”

But of course he did have thoughts and things to say. He just needed someone to ask him the right question.

Harpham said he’s under no illusion that we’ll return to that golden age of general education. But he said he does hold out hope that general education survives as a powerful democratizing force and a “common commitment — variously realized to be sure — to a common culture that we all share and have a responsibility for.”

While general education is often expressed as a program of courses and values, it’s also an “aspiration,” or spirit, that can be embodied by any professor in any class, he said.

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, agreed that general education is a democratizing force that provides a mind- and life-broadening education to the many, not just the elite few. And so political rhetoric that “calls into question the value of higher ed generally, and of liberal education in particular, perpetuates growing racial and economic segregation in our society,” she said.

What can be done? Higher education needs to “demonstrate in a more compelling way that we are teaching 21st-century skills,” Pasquerella said. She offered the example of her own son, Pierce, who railed against having to take courses in small group communication and intercultural competence while he was studying to be a filmmaker.

Then Pierce’s first job out of college happened to be on the Jerry Springer show, where he helped manage guests for hours on end in the green room. Finally all that education made sense to him.

Still, Pasquerella said, if a student who has two academics for parents doesn’t understand at the time what good his education is doing him, “What hope do other students have of sticking with a structure they think is totally useless?”

Case Studies in Gen Ed Reform

Indeed, one measure of a gen ed program’s value is student buy-in. In one of a number of general education case studies presented, Mary Dana Hinton, president of the College of Saint Benedict, said that her faculty members are seeking to build a more cohesive and student-centered program with the college’s new Integrations Curriculum. The program, set to begin in fall 2020, was guided by three design principles: making explicit connections between classes via themed courses, reflection and more; high-impact practices including writing-intensive courses, common intellectual experiences and a student portfolio; and a strong liberal arts and sciences education.

“Our faculty was seeking to answer two key questions: Why does general education matter to liberally educated students, and what content and pedagogy best support our goals for the liberal arts” on campus? Hinton said. While the process was faculty driven, Hinton added, students were engaged in conversations about what courses would help them lead and make positive change in the world from the start.

Linda A. Bell, provost and dean of the faculty at Barnard College, helped oversee a general education reform around 2016 that was, in part, prompted by students’ requests for a change. There wasn’t necessarily anything wrong with the 16-year-old curriculum centered on nine ways of knowing, she said. But “fundamentally working is not good enough.”

Barnard’s reform, also driven by the faculty, resulted in a new Foundations curriculum promoting six modes of thinking, including thinking technologically and digitally. Courses in dance, architecture and fine arts, among other disciplines, satisfy it. Barnard has devoted more resources to it based on student demand. It’s also committed to reviewing the Foundations every five years.

Ursinus College also hopes to transform the residential college experience with its new general education program based on four enduring questions, Mark B. Schneider, provost and dean, said in a separate TED talk-style presentation.

While liberal arts colleges were well represented at the event, administrators, faculty members and even students from across institution types shared insights, too. Pam Y. Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College, reminded those present that half of all college students are at institutions like hers. So if general education is to survive, she said, community colleges must be involved in conversations about it. And those conversations must be inclusive, she added, saying that her culinary students and faculty members are intellectuals, too, for example.

Melody Bowdon, interim vice provost for teaching and learning at the University of Central Florida, is helping lead an overhaul of the general education program there. It’s complicated by the institution’s massive enrollment (some 68,000 students, mostly undergraduates), state restrictions on the curriculum and the fact that over half of undergraduates transfer from community colleges.

Still, she said, the process has gone relatively smoothly and enjoyed high levels of faculty enthusiasm. A valuable part of the process is hearing faculty members make explicit connections between program requirements and the content they’re already teaching — making what’s often invisible in general education visible. Bowdon also personally invites faculty members to participate in workshops on the pedagogical innovations that make gen ed courses that much more successful.

Donald J. Laackman, president of preprofessional Champlain College, talked about the merits of integrating general education across disciplines, for all four years, via the Core. And Melinda Zook, professor of history at Purdue University, discussed the runaway success of a Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts certificate program for students studying outside the liberal arts. The 15-credit-hour certificate is based on engagement with transformative texts and advanced humanities study.

Diversity Matters

An increasing number of institutions are requiring students to study diversity within their curricula. Should they?

Lucía Martínez Valdivia, assistant professor of English and humanities at Reed College, spoke with candor about her lingering doubts as to how her institution responded to a long-term student protest over a shared introductory humanities courses. The course, Hum 110, previously began with The Epic of Gilgamesh and covered ancient texts from Rome to Egypt. But following student complaints that the curriculum was “too white,” there are now new modules. One of them attempts to cover 500 years of Mexican cultural history in a few weeks.

At least one student involved in the protest has since expressed regret, acknowledging that she “didn’t know what she didn’t know” at the time, Valdivia said. Valdivia’s response was that that’s typical for an 18-year-old. But the fact that students don’t know what they don’t know is something colleges might seriously weigh in responding to these kinds of student demands, she said.

Valdivia also said her last few weeks of teaching have confirmed that the closer in time and space diversity-based content is to students’ own experiences, the harder it is for them to be objective and ready to take information in.

Students’ “learning identity is something we can no longer take for granted at liberal arts colleges,” she said. “Things have changed so much in the last 10 years.”

Laura Rosanne Adderley, associate professor of history at Tulane University, said students were involved in but did not drive a decision to add two diversity-related requirements to their curriculum. Students are now requred to take one course that is more than 50 percent related to race and inclusion in the U.S.., and one course on global perspectives. The latter requirement was inspired by the idea that when one studies life, language or culture outside one’s own domain, one’s racial empathy grows.

Adderley said it’s too soon to call these new requirements a success. But one hope is that they’ll not only revitalize enrollments in history and other courses dealing with diversity, but possibly draw students deeper into these programs, through exposure.

But to Valdivia’s point, students only benefit when they are in a growth mind-set and believe they have something to learn, Adderley said.

“These courses are not to fix people who don’t already know,” Adderley said. “It’s not what they’re there for.”

Measuring Gen Ed’s Value

Getting gen ed right is clearly tricky. But beyond anecdotes and personal opinion, the data on long-term outcomes indicate that students benefit when colleges do get it right. Richard A. Detweiler, founder and managing director of HigherEdImpact, discussed his findings from 1,000 interviews with both liberal arts and other kinds of college graduates, 10 to 40 years postgraduation. He found that gradates who reported key experiences associated with liberal arts colleges (which tend to value general education) had greater odds of measures of life success associated with these colleges’ goals.

Graduates who reported discussing philosophical or ethical issues in many classes, and who took classes in the humanities, were 25 to 60 percent more likely than other graduates to have characteristics of altruists, for example (meaning they volunteered and gave to nonprofit groups, etc.). And those who reported that professors encouraged them to examine the strengths and weaknesses of their views, and whose course work emphasized questions on which there is not necessarily a correct answer, were 25 to 40 percent more likely to report that they felt personally fulfilled.

As for money, Detweiler has found there is a strong relationship between a having a broad undergraduate education and financial success. Those who take more than half of their course work in subjects unrelated to their majors — an extensive general education — are 31 to 72 percent more likely than others to have higher-level positions and to be earning more than $100,000.

A number of commenters throughout the day bemoaned the difficulty in assessing general education at the institutional level. But Carol Geary Schneider, fellow at the Lumina Foundation and president emerita of the AAC&U, bristled at that idea, saying that there’s no need to recreate the wheel on assessment. Groups such as AAC&U have long-standing essential learning outcomes for a liberal education, she said.

“You don’t have to measure every little course,” she said. “We’re not doing enough to celebrate the tools that already exist.”

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WASHINGTON -- General education is not simply filler for a student’s time in college beyond the major. Done well, gen ed can answer students’ questions about what college is, and why it matters.

Gen ed is also a great American contribution to higher education, affording students the time and space for intellectual exploration, and teaching them to learn to think in different ways.

Yet general education is under threat. Politicians question the value of it, specifically requirements that aren’t explicitly job oriented. Students don’t always get it. And creating and adopting a strong general education program demands much of already time- if not resource-strapped professors and their institutions.

Is gen ed worth the fight? Speakers at Wednesday’s Inside Higher Ed Leadership Series event, The Future of Gen Ed, think so. The sold-out all-day meeting, held at Gallup's headquarters here, featured conversations on why general education matters more than ever, along with data-driven arguments for gen ed. Other speakers offered thoughts on challenges and lessons learned in their own institutions’ gen ed reforms, and whether diversity should be a program requirement.

‘A Common Commitment’

Geoffrey Harpham, visiting scholar and senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University and former president and director of the National Humanities Center, talked about the namesake figure of his 2018 book on the “golden age” of education, What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez?: The American Revolution in Education. Harpham once met a Mr. Ramirez (that’s a pseudonym) during a campus visit and described how general education transformed the man’s life.

Ramirez went from being a penniless Cuban refugee in 1960s Florida who spoke no English to a professor emeritus of comparative literature. The turning point was when he enrolled in a community college and was forced to take a course on Shakespeare. A professor asked him what he thought about some topic of discussion -- the first time anyone had ever done so. Ramirez was too embarrassed to answer at the time, as he thought he had nothing to say and “no thoughts at all.”

But of course he did have thoughts and things to say. He just needed someone to ask him the right question.

Harpham said he’s under no illusion that we’ll return to that golden age of general education. But he said he does hold out hope that general education survives as a powerful democratizing force and a “common commitment -- variously realized to be sure -- to a common culture that we all share and have a responsibility for.”

While general education is often expressed as a program of courses and values, it’s also an “aspiration,” or spirit, that can be embodied by any professor in any class, he said.

Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, agreed that general education is a democratizing force that provides a mind- and life-broadening education to the many, not just the elite few. And so political rhetoric that “calls into question the value of higher ed generally, and of liberal education in particular, perpetuates growing racial and economic segregation in our society,” she said.

What can be done? Higher education needs to “demonstrate in a more compelling way that we are teaching 21st-century skills,” Pasquerella said. She offered the example of her own son, Pierce, who railed against having to take courses in small group communication and intercultural competence while he was studying to be a filmmaker.

Then Pierce’s first job out of college happened to be on the Jerry Springer show, where he helped manage guests for hours on end in the green room. Finally all that education made sense to him.

Still, Pasquerella said, if a student who has two academics for parents doesn’t understand at the time what good his education is doing him, “What hope do other students have of sticking with a structure they think is totally useless?”

Case Studies in Gen Ed Reform

Indeed, one measure of a gen ed program’s value is student buy-in. In one of a number of general education case studies presented, Mary Dana Hinton, president of the College of Saint Benedict, said that her faculty members are seeking to build a more cohesive and student-centered program with the college’s new Integrations Curriculum. The program, set to begin in fall 2020, was guided by three design principles: making explicit connections between classes via themed courses, reflection and more; high-impact practices including writing-intensive courses, common intellectual experiences and a student portfolio; and a strong liberal arts and sciences education.

“Our faculty was seeking to answer two key questions: Why does general education matter to liberally educated students, and what content and pedagogy best support our goals for the liberal arts” on campus? Hinton said. While the process was faculty driven, Hinton added, students were engaged in conversations about what courses would help them lead and make positive change in the world from the start.

Linda A. Bell, provost and dean of the faculty at Barnard College, helped oversee a general education reform around 2016 that was, in part, prompted by students' requests for a change. There wasn’t necessarily anything wrong with the 16-year-old curriculum centered on nine ways of knowing, she said. But “fundamentally working is not good enough.”

Barnard’s reform, also driven by the faculty, resulted in a new Foundations curriculum promoting six modes of thinking, including thinking technologically and digitally. Courses in dance, architecture and fine arts, among other disciplines, satisfy it. Barnard has devoted more resources to it based on student demand. It's also committed to reviewing the Foundations every five years.

Ursinus College also hopes to transform the residential college experience with its new general education program based on four enduring questions, Mark B. Schneider, provost and dean, said in a separate TED talk-style presentation.

While liberal arts colleges were well represented at the event, administrators, faculty members and even students from across institution types shared insights, too. Pam Y. Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College, reminded those present that half of all college students are at institutions like hers. So if general education is to survive, she said, community colleges must be involved in conversations about it. And those conversations must be inclusive, she added, saying that her culinary students and faculty members are intellectuals, too, for example.

Melody Bowdon, interim vice provost for teaching and learning at the University of Central Florida, is helping lead an overhaul of the general education program there. It’s complicated by the institution’s massive enrollment (some 68,000 students, mostly undergraduates), state restrictions on the curriculum and the fact that over half of undergraduates transfer from community colleges.

Still, she said, the process has gone relatively smoothly and enjoyed high levels of faculty enthusiasm. A valuable part of the process is hearing faculty members make explicit connections between program requirements and the content they’re already teaching -- making what's often invisible in general education visible. Bowdon also personally invites faculty members to participate in workshops on the pedagogical innovations that make gen ed courses that much more successful.

Donald J. Laackman, president of preprofessional Champlain College, talked about the merits of integrating general education across disciplines, for all four years, via the Core. And Melinda Zook, professor of history at Purdue University, discussed the runaway success of a Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts certificate program for students studying outside the liberal arts. The 15-credit-hour certificate is based on engagement with transformative texts and advanced humanities study.

Diversity Matters

An increasing number of institutions are requiring students to study diversity within their curricula. Should they?

Lucía Martínez Valdivia, assistant professor of English and humanities at Reed College, spoke with candor about her lingering doubts as to how her institution responded to a long-term student protest over a shared introductory humanities courses. The course, Hum 110, previously began with The Epic of Gilgamesh and covered ancient texts from Rome to Egypt. But following student complaints that the curriculum was "too white," there are now new modules. One of them attempts to cover 500 years of Mexican cultural history in a few weeks.

At least one student involved in the protest has since expressed regret, acknowledging that she “didn’t know what she didn’t know” at the time, Valdivia said. Valdivia’s response was that that’s typical for an 18-year-old. But the fact that students don’t know what they don’t know is something colleges might seriously weigh in responding to these kinds of student demands, she said.

Valdivia also said her last few weeks of teaching have confirmed that the closer in time and space diversity-based content is to students’ own experiences, the harder it is for them to be objective and ready to take information in.

Students' "learning identity is something we can no longer take for granted at liberal arts colleges,” she said. “Things have changed so much in the last 10 years.”

Laura Rosanne Adderley, associate professor of history at Tulane University, said students were involved in but did not drive a decision to add two diversity-related requirements to their curriculum. Students are now requred to take one course that is more than 50 percent related to race and inclusion in the U.S.., and one course on global perspectives. The latter requirement was inspired by the idea that when one studies life, language or culture outside one’s own domain, one’s racial empathy grows.

Adderley said it’s too soon to call these new requirements a success. But one hope is that they’ll not only revitalize enrollments in history and other courses dealing with diversity, but possibly draw students deeper into these programs, through exposure.

But to Valdivia’s point, students only benefit when they are in a growth mind-set and believe they have something to learn, Adderley said.

“These courses are not to fix people who don’t already know,” Adderley said. “It’s not what they’re there for.”

Measuring Gen Ed's Value

Getting gen ed right is clearly tricky. But beyond anecdotes and personal opinion, the data on long-term outcomes indicate that students benefit when colleges do get it right. Richard A. Detweiler, founder and managing director of HigherEdImpact, discussed his findings from 1,000 interviews with both liberal arts and other kinds of college graduates, 10 to 40 years postgraduation. He found that gradates who reported key experiences associated with liberal arts colleges (which tend to value general education) had greater odds of measures of life success associated with these colleges’ goals.

Graduates who reported discussing philosophical or ethical issues in many classes, and who took classes in the humanities, were 25 to 60 percent more likely than other graduates to have characteristics of altruists, for example (meaning they volunteered and gave to nonprofit groups, etc.). And those who reported that professors encouraged them to examine the strengths and weaknesses of their views, and whose course work emphasized questions on which there is not necessarily a correct answer, were 25 to 40 percent more likely to report that they felt personally fulfilled.

As for money, Detweiler has found there is a strong relationship between a having a broad undergraduate education and financial success. Those who take more than half of their course work in subjects unrelated to their majors -- an extensive general education -- are 31 to 72 percent more likely than others to have higher-level positions and to be earning more than $100,000.

A number of commenters throughout the day bemoaned the difficulty in assessing general education at the institutional level. But Carol Geary Schneider, fellow at the Lumina Foundation and president emerita of the AAC&U, bristled at that idea, saying that there's no need to recreate the wheel on assessment. Groups such as AAC&U have long-standing essential learning outcomes for a liberal education, she said.

"You don't have to measure every little course," she said. "We're not doing enough to celebrate the tools that already exist."

Faculty
The Curriculum
Image Caption: 
From left: Scott Jaschik, co-founder and editor of 'Inside Higher Ed'; Geoffrey Harpham, visiting scholar and senior fellow at Duke University; and Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities
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Middlebury calls off lecture by conservative Polish leader amid threats of protests

A little more than two years ago, Middlebury College students shouted down Charles Murray, the controversial writer whom many accuse of espousing racist ideas, preventing him from giving a public lecture at the college. While Murray was not the first speaker blocked from speaking on a campus, his case captured national attention. Although Middlebury later punished many of those found to have prevented him from speaking (videotape captured the incident), many accused the college of failing to protect free expression.

On Wednesday, another controversial figure was slated to give a talk at Middlebury. Again, protests were planned against the speaker, although it is unclear if those protests would have disrupted the speech — a violation of Middlebury rules and the norms of campus discourse. This time Middlebury called off the event, citing safety concerns.

An email that went out to the campus hours before the scheduled appearance by Ryszard Legutko said, “In the interest of ensuring the safety of students, faculty, staff and community members, the lecture by Ryszard Legutko scheduled for later today will not take place. The decision was not taken lightly. It was based on an assessment of our ability to respond effectively to potential security and safety risks for both the lecture and the event students had planned in response.”

The email was signed by Jeff Cason, the provost, and Baishakhi Taylor, dean of students.

They went on to write that due to location changes and an increased number of expected attendees, “we didn’t have the staff capacity” to assure safety.

The Alexander Hamilton Forum, a group at Middlebury that invited Legutko, indicated that it would invite him again in the fall, and a Middlebury spokeswoman indicated that the college was open to that visit, consistent with “standard” event scheduling rules.

While he was unable to speak in a public lecture, Legutko did appear in a political science class, some of which was live-streamed to Facebook.

Legutko is a professor of philosophy at Jagiellonian University, in Kraków. He is also a member of the European Parliament and is associated with far-right views that have growing support in Eastern Europe. He has offended many groups, and criticism at Middlebury has noted his support for discrimination against gay people. His fans note his stance against dictatorship in the era when the Soviet Union controlled Poland.

An open letter circulating on campus questions sponsoring “a speaker who blatantly and proudly expounds homophobic, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic discourse.” Bringing such a speaker to campus amounts to “shutting out large swaths of the Middlebury community, all of whom are engaged, critical and rigorous thinkers whose energies would be better spent not combating degrading and dehumanizing rhetoric.”

A recent Middlebury graduate who is from Poland published a letter in the student newspaper in which he said in part, “I am all for Middlebury inviting speakers that hold views different than those of the campus majority. But you could at least seek speakers who are not bigots and hypocrites.”

Keegan Callahan, assistant professor of political science and director of the Alexander Hamilton Forum, circulated another letter about the planned visit. While noting that many respect Legutko, the letter stressed the value of the college having speakers with a range of views.

“We treat all Middlebury students as independent thinkers with a right to and capacity for free and open inquiry,” the letter said. “We are committed to viewpoint diversity and freedom of thought. We believe that through the competition of ideas, each of us can better understand our own deepest convictions and make progress in the pursuit of truth. We believe that Middlebury students deserve to hear a multiplicity of perspectives, including the views of influential scholars with whom we might disagree strongly.”

As word spread Wednesday about another conservative figure being unable to speak at Middlebury, some academics far from campus spoke out against what happened. Robert George, a Princeton University professor who has defended the right of controversial academics (on the left and right) to speak, offered a series of tweets.

A “liberal arts college” that bans speech is like a “cigar bar” that forbids smoking. What’s the point of the place? #middleburyyieldstothemob

— Robert P. George (@McCormickProf) April 17, 2019

Middlebury yields to the mob’s threats of violence. No questioning of campus dogmas permitted. Why keep the place open? “College Cancels Conservative Philosopher’s Lecture on Totalitarianism”: https://t.co/303oDFTFfC

— Robert P. George (@McCormickProf) April 17, 2019

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A little more than two years ago, Middlebury College students shouted down Charles Murray, the controversial writer whom many accuse of espousing racist ideas, preventing him from giving a public lecture at the college. While Murray was not the first speaker blocked from speaking on a campus, his case captured national attention. Although Middlebury later punished many of those found to have prevented him from speaking (videotape captured the incident), many accused the college of failing to protect free expression.

On Wednesday, another controversial figure was slated to give a talk at Middlebury. Again, protests were planned against the speaker, although it is unclear if those protests would have disrupted the speech -- a violation of Middlebury rules and the norms of campus discourse. This time Middlebury called off the event, citing safety concerns.

An email that went out to the campus hours before the scheduled appearance by Ryszard Legutko said, "In the interest of ensuring the safety of students, faculty, staff and community members, the lecture by Ryszard Legutko scheduled for later today will not take place. The decision was not taken lightly. It was based on an assessment of our ability to respond effectively to potential security and safety risks for both the lecture and the event students had planned in response."

The email was signed by Jeff Cason, the provost, and Baishakhi Taylor, dean of students.

They went on to write that due to location changes and an increased number of expected attendees, "we didn't have the staff capacity" to assure safety.

The Alexander Hamilton Forum, a group at Middlebury that invited Legutko, indicated that it would invite him again in the fall, and a Middlebury spokeswoman indicated that the college was open to that visit, consistent with "standard" event scheduling rules.

While he was unable to speak in a public lecture, Legutko did appear in a political science class, some of which was live-streamed to Facebook.

Legutko is a professor of philosophy at Jagiellonian University, in Kraków. He is also a member of the European Parliament and is associated with far-right views that have growing support in Eastern Europe. He has offended many groups, and criticism at Middlebury has noted his support for discrimination against gay people. His fans note his stance against dictatorship in the era when the Soviet Union controlled Poland.

An open letter circulating on campus questions sponsoring "a speaker who blatantly and proudly expounds homophobic, racist, xenophobic, misogynistic discourse." Bringing such a speaker to campus amounts to "shutting out large swaths of the Middlebury community, all of whom are engaged, critical and rigorous thinkers whose energies would be better spent not combating degrading and dehumanizing rhetoric."

A recent Middlebury graduate who is from Poland published a letter in the student newspaper in which he said in part, "I am all for Middlebury inviting speakers that hold views different than those of the campus majority. But you could at least seek speakers who are not bigots and hypocrites."

Keegan Callahan, assistant professor of political science and director of the Alexander Hamilton Forum, circulated another letter about the planned visit. While noting that many respect Legutko, the letter stressed the value of the college having speakers with a range of views.

"We treat all Middlebury students as independent thinkers with a right to and capacity for free and open inquiry," the letter said. "We are committed to viewpoint diversity and freedom of thought. We believe that through the competition of ideas, each of us can better understand our own deepest convictions and make progress in the pursuit of truth. We believe that Middlebury students deserve to hear a multiplicity of perspectives, including the views of influential scholars with whom we might disagree strongly."

As word spread Wednesday about another conservative figure being unable to speak at Middlebury, some academics far from campus spoke out against what happened. Robert George, a Princeton University professor who has defended the right of controversial academics (on the left and right) to speak, offered a series of tweets.

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Author discusses new book on impact of Virginia Tech mass shooting

On April 16, 2007, a gunman murdered 32 students and professors at Virginia Tech. Other mass shootings (including on college campuses) have followed, but the words “Virginia Tech” evoke a particular sense of the shock of what happened there in 2007.

After Virginia Tech: Guns, Safety and Healing in the Era of Mass Shootings (University of Virginia Press) tells the story of what happened after that terrible day. Thomas Kapsidelis, the author, is a journalist and a fellow at Virginia Humanities. Via email, he responded to questions about the book.

Q: What do you see as the key evolution you document of many of the survivors and family members of the slain at Virginia Tech in terms of how they responded?

A: It’s impossible to generalize about the experiences of survivors, especially in a community as large and diverse as Virginia Tech. Some of the survivors whose work I reported on in this book came to advocacy very soon after the shootings. Others may have taken some time, or been active at certain times and less so at others. Three of the graduates I followed worked in advocacy over much of the decade after the shootings. But they are quick to point out, and I agree with this, that the work of Tech survivors who may not be known to the public but who have persevered and have accomplished so much personally and professionally, must also be recognized. As one parent told me, “Whether the survivors choose to go forward as advocates for policy change or to continue with their previously chosen careers, they show strength and resiliency.”

Q: Certain names — Columbine and Sandy Hook — have come to be identified with certain kinds of mass shootings. What has Virginia Tech come to mean?

A: The Virginia Tech tragedy changed how higher education administrators in Virginia and across the nation view campus safety. A timely notice when there is a threat — which was delayed at Virginia Tech — would now seem to be a given. Likewise, the establishment of threat-assessment teams gives colleges and universities an organized way to intervene before a problem becomes an emergency. Sadly, some of these reforms are more difficult to replicate in our own communities, as shown by shootings in which the perpetrator was a person who showed signs of problems but slipped through the system for any number of reasons. Likewise, even with the increased awareness and strategies that have emerged since Virginia Tech, safety depends on vigilance and everyone doing their part. In my book, I quote a Virginia mental health official advising his colleagues, “Don’t become complacent … and don’t forget that the eyes of the world are now on you all the time.”

Q: How has Virginia Tech (the university) balanced the need to memorialize the dead, and to promote the normal functioning of a large university?

A: The April 16 Memorial is on Virginia Tech’s historic Drillfield, in front of the main administration building and just steps away from Norris Hall, where 30 of the 32 were killed before the gunman took his own life in the front of a French class. I’ve been there many times and never fail to see someone stop and pay respects at the 32 “Hokie stones” inscribed with the names of the victims. The memorial grew from a tribute started by a student group, Hokies United, in the days after the shootings. A survivor of the 1966 University of Texas tower shootings told me the memorial at Tech helped drive interest in dedicating a larger memorial at UT, which took place in 2016.

Norris Hall is still in use. Renovations on the second floor, where the attack took place, included space for a new Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, founded by a professor whose wife, a French instructor, was killed.

The university initially canceled classes for its annual Day of Remembrance, but resumed a regular schedule in 2012. The annual remembrance continues, however, and includes a memorial 3.2-mile run and walk. Activities have included displays from the huge collection of memorial tributes and items from around the world that are under the care of the university’s archivist. Among these tributes is an oversized, wood-bound book of condolences sent to Tech in 2007 from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. When I was completing my book, I was amazed to find that I had snapped a picture of the MSD tribute when it was on display for the 10th anniversary memorial weekend at Tech, a year before the Parkland shootings.

Amid the deep sorrow at Virginia Tech, the many questions of accountability would make any immediate recovery even more difficult. Time cannot heal all wounds. But I think the dignity, love and determination of the survivors have buoyed the Tech community. And just like the survivors we don’t hear about, there are many others — faculty, administration and employees — whose compassion will always be remembered.

Q: What lessons should higher education learn from Virginia Tech?

A: The safety and well-being of everyone in the campus community must be a priority. Universities should examine their complex systems to ensure they are responsive to the needs of students, faculty and staff — and families. Having a safe campus doesn’t just happen. It needs to be tended and the product of communication with all involved. This goes beyond gun violence, given the many troubling issues facing colleges and universities.

Q: Campus carry has spread in the years since Virginia Tech (and many other shootings). Why do you think that the efforts of Virginia Tech survivors haven’t been effective in preventing this?

A: Virginia Tech survivors spoke out against this in the immediate aftermath of the shootings, and I sense the movement for campus concealed carry in Virginia has waned over the years even as other gun rights have expanded nationally. In Texas, a Virginia Tech graduate whom I wrote about in the book was in the forefront of opposing campus concealed carry, which took effect in 2016 but only after earlier defeats in the Legislature. There is obviously renewed discussion across the nation about the role of armed staff and individuals in schools. As of 2018, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more states banned campus concealed carry rather than allowed it. Nearly half the states leave the decision up to the institution.

It’s important to note that Tech survivors, families and community members have become influential and respected for their advocacy in the areas of guns, safety and healing. Survivor advocacy has long been a force in the American gun violence debate, and we’ve seen that most recently with the energy of Marjory Stoneman Douglas students and the support they’ve generated. But one scholar told me the Tech community deserves recognition for helping create a template for involvement, in a time when the social media channels that are so effectively used today were just in their infancy. Added another expert who is an ally of the Tech families, “Had those families retreated, I think that you might have a very different outcome today.”

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On April 16, 2007, a gunman murdered 32 students and professors at Virginia Tech. Other mass shootings (including on college campuses) have followed, but the words "Virginia Tech" evoke a particular sense of the shock of what happened there in 2007.

After Virginia Tech: Guns, Safety and Healing in the Era of Mass Shootings (University of Virginia Press) tells the story of what happened after that terrible day. Thomas Kapsidelis, the author, is a journalist and a fellow at Virginia Humanities. Via email, he responded to questions about the book.

Q: What do you see as the key evolution you document of many of the survivors and family members of the slain at Virginia Tech in terms of how they responded?

A: It’s impossible to generalize about the experiences of survivors, especially in a community as large and diverse as Virginia Tech. Some of the survivors whose work I reported on in this book came to advocacy very soon after the shootings. Others may have taken some time, or been active at certain times and less so at others. Three of the graduates I followed worked in advocacy over much of the decade after the shootings. But they are quick to point out, and I agree with this, that the work of Tech survivors who may not be known to the public but who have persevered and have accomplished so much personally and professionally, must also be recognized. As one parent told me, “Whether the survivors choose to go forward as advocates for policy change or to continue with their previously chosen careers, they show strength and resiliency.”

Q: Certain names -- Columbine and Sandy Hook -- have come to be identified with certain kinds of mass shootings. What has Virginia Tech come to mean?

A: The Virginia Tech tragedy changed how higher education administrators in Virginia and across the nation view campus safety. A timely notice when there is a threat -- which was delayed at Virginia Tech -- would now seem to be a given. Likewise, the establishment of threat-assessment teams gives colleges and universities an organized way to intervene before a problem becomes an emergency. Sadly, some of these reforms are more difficult to replicate in our own communities, as shown by shootings in which the perpetrator was a person who showed signs of problems but slipped through the system for any number of reasons. Likewise, even with the increased awareness and strategies that have emerged since Virginia Tech, safety depends on vigilance and everyone doing their part. In my book, I quote a Virginia mental health official advising his colleagues, "Don’t become complacent … and don’t forget that the eyes of the world are now on you all the time."

Q: How has Virginia Tech (the university) balanced the need to memorialize the dead, and to promote the normal functioning of a large university?

A: The April 16 Memorial is on Virginia Tech’s historic Drillfield, in front of the main administration building and just steps away from Norris Hall, where 30 of the 32 were killed before the gunman took his own life in the front of a French class. I’ve been there many times and never fail to see someone stop and pay respects at the 32 “Hokie stones” inscribed with the names of the victims. The memorial grew from a tribute started by a student group, Hokies United, in the days after the shootings. A survivor of the 1966 University of Texas tower shootings told me the memorial at Tech helped drive interest in dedicating a larger memorial at UT, which took place in 2016.

Norris Hall is still in use. Renovations on the second floor, where the attack took place, included space for a new Center for Peace Studies and Violence Prevention, founded by a professor whose wife, a French instructor, was killed.

The university initially canceled classes for its annual Day of Remembrance, but resumed a regular schedule in 2012. The annual remembrance continues, however, and includes a memorial 3.2-mile run and walk. Activities have included displays from the huge collection of memorial tributes and items from around the world that are under the care of the university’s archivist. Among these tributes is an oversized, wood-bound book of condolences sent to Tech in 2007 from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. When I was completing my book, I was amazed to find that I had snapped a picture of the MSD tribute when it was on display for the 10th anniversary memorial weekend at Tech, a year before the Parkland shootings.

Amid the deep sorrow at Virginia Tech, the many questions of accountability would make any immediate recovery even more difficult. Time cannot heal all wounds. But I think the dignity, love and determination of the survivors have buoyed the Tech community. And just like the survivors we don’t hear about, there are many others -- faculty, administration and employees -- whose compassion will always be remembered.

Q: What lessons should higher education learn from Virginia Tech?

A: The safety and well-being of everyone in the campus community must be a priority. Universities should examine their complex systems to ensure they are responsive to the needs of students, faculty and staff -- and families. Having a safe campus doesn’t just happen. It needs to be tended and the product of communication with all involved. This goes beyond gun violence, given the many troubling issues facing colleges and universities.

Q: Campus carry has spread in the years since Virginia Tech (and many other shootings). Why do you think that the efforts of Virginia Tech survivors haven't been effective in preventing this?

A: Virginia Tech survivors spoke out against this in the immediate aftermath of the shootings, and I sense the movement for campus concealed carry in Virginia has waned over the years even as other gun rights have expanded nationally. In Texas, a Virginia Tech graduate whom I wrote about in the book was in the forefront of opposing campus concealed carry, which took effect in 2016 but only after earlier defeats in the Legislature. There is obviously renewed discussion across the nation about the role of armed staff and individuals in schools. As of 2018, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more states banned campus concealed carry rather than allowed it. Nearly half the states leave the decision up to the institution.

It’s important to note that Tech survivors, families and community members have become influential and respected for their advocacy in the areas of guns, safety and healing. Survivor advocacy has long been a force in the American gun violence debate, and we’ve seen that most recently with the energy of Marjory Stoneman Douglas students and the support they’ve generated. But one scholar told me the Tech community deserves recognition for helping create a template for involvement, in a time when the social media channels that are so effectively used today were just in their infancy. Added another expert who is an ally of the Tech families, “Had those families retreated, I think that you might have a very different outcome today.”

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Tensions grow in Australia over courses on Western civilization

Plans for lavishly funded “great books” courses are under a cloud amid academic revolts at two Australian universities.

The executive and the governing council of the University of Wollongong have closed ranks over Vice Chancellor Paul Wellings’s approval of a degree bankrolled by the Ramsay Center for Western Civilization, a philanthropic organization.

Meanwhile, proposals to offer Ramsay-funded majors at the University of Queensland have hit a snag, after the board of studies for UQ’s humanities and social sciences faculty unanimously rejected the draft curricula.

The developments at both institutions suggest that the conflicts over the planned courses — opposed by many academics and students because of perceptions that they curtail academic autonomy and champion a “Western supremacist” perspective — are increasingly becoming a test of university governance.

Wollongong avoided a staff and student backlash by negotiating with Ramsay in secret and announcing an agreement in December as a fait accompli. Wellings then bypassed Academic Senate scrutiny of the proposed course by approving it under “fast track” procedures, a move that the university says was necessary to meet publication deadlines for a 2020 course handbook.

In late March, the Academic Senate lodged a formal protest. Insiders said that the fast-track process was typically used to “tweak” existing courses and had never been used to endorse an entire new program.

This month the National Tertiary Education Union launched proceedings in the New South Wales Supreme Court, seeking to have the approval overturned. But last week, the university council sided with the executive.

“I am comfortable that the decisions taken by the vice chancellor have been in accordance with university policies and in the best interests of the institution,” Chancellor Jillian Broadbent said in a statement issued by the university.

That view is not shared by academics and students who protested prior to the meeting. Chloe Rafferty, president of the Wollongong Undergraduate Student Association, said that the university council should have recognized the position of the Academic Senate, “which is supposed to be the body that ensures our university has academic integrity.”

Rafferty said that she had been denied access to the council meeting to discuss a budget for the student union — an address that she said had been planned for months — with three security guards barring her entry. The university said that Rafferty had not registered her intention to attend the meeting — a claim that she denied.

NTEU Wollongong’s branch president, Georgine Clarsen, said that she had written to the university council members explaining why the union had taken legal action, enclosing copies of the court documentation, to ensure that the issue would not be “swept under the carpet.”

She said that the university’s governance unit had refused to confirm whether the information had been passed on to council members.

NTEU national president Alison Barnes said that the union had initiated legal proceedings because of the “gradual and persistent erosion of academic governance” at universities such as Wollongong.

The Supreme Court has the power to overturn Wollongong’s administrative decisions because the university was established under state legislation. The first hearing is set for April 23.

Meanwhile, UQ’s HASS board of studies has warned the faculty’s executive dean that “further consultation and refinement of the curriculum” for proposed Ramsay-funded courses is required.

Many of the faculty’s academics had earlier issued a petition opposing Ramsay-funded courses on academic freedom and institutional autonomy grounds. “There are incalculable reputational risks for the University of Queensland in linking itself to an external body that clearly has a specific political agenda,” the petition says.

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Plans for lavishly funded “great books” courses are under a cloud amid academic revolts at two Australian universities.

The executive and the governing council of the University of Wollongong have closed ranks over Vice Chancellor Paul Wellings’s approval of a degree bankrolled by the Ramsay Center for Western Civilization, a philanthropic organization.

Meanwhile, proposals to offer Ramsay-funded majors at the University of Queensland have hit a snag, after the board of studies for UQ’s humanities and social sciences faculty unanimously rejected the draft curricula.

The developments at both institutions suggest that the conflicts over the planned courses -- opposed by many academics and students because of perceptions that they curtail academic autonomy and champion a “Western supremacist” perspective -- are increasingly becoming a test of university governance.

Wollongong avoided a staff and student backlash by negotiating with Ramsay in secret and announcing an agreement in December as a fait accompli. Wellings then bypassed Academic Senate scrutiny of the proposed course by approving it under “fast track” procedures, a move that the university says was necessary to meet publication deadlines for a 2020 course handbook.

In late March, the Academic Senate lodged a formal protest. Insiders said that the fast-track process was typically used to “tweak” existing courses and had never been used to endorse an entire new program.

This month the National Tertiary Education Union launched proceedings in the New South Wales Supreme Court, seeking to have the approval overturned. But last week, the university council sided with the executive.

“I am comfortable that the decisions taken by the vice chancellor have been in accordance with university policies and in the best interests of the institution,” Chancellor Jillian Broadbent said in a statement issued by the university.

That view is not shared by academics and students who protested prior to the meeting. Chloe Rafferty, president of the Wollongong Undergraduate Student Association, said that the university council should have recognized the position of the Academic Senate, “which is supposed to be the body that ensures our university has academic integrity.”

Rafferty said that she had been denied access to the council meeting to discuss a budget for the student union -- an address that she said had been planned for months -- with three security guards barring her entry. The university said that Rafferty had not registered her intention to attend the meeting -- a claim that she denied.

NTEU Wollongong's branch president, Georgine Clarsen, said that she had written to the university council members explaining why the union had taken legal action, enclosing copies of the court documentation, to ensure that the issue would not be “swept under the carpet.”

She said that the university’s governance unit had refused to confirm whether the information had been passed on to council members.

NTEU national president Alison Barnes said that the union had initiated legal proceedings because of the “gradual and persistent erosion of academic governance” at universities such as Wollongong.

The Supreme Court has the power to overturn Wollongong’s administrative decisions because the university was established under state legislation. The first hearing is set for April 23.

Meanwhile, UQ’s HASS board of studies has warned the faculty’s executive dean that “further consultation and refinement of the curriculum” for proposed Ramsay-funded courses is required.

Many of the faculty’s academics had earlier issued a petition opposing Ramsay-funded courses on academic freedom and institutional autonomy grounds. “There are incalculable reputational risks for the University of Queensland in linking itself to an external body that clearly has a specific political agenda,” the petition says.

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Colleges announce commencement speakers

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Advocates for student learning assessment say it’s time for a different approach

GARDEN GROVE, Calif. — Ask the many assessment haters in higher education who is most to blame for what they perceive as the fixation on trying to measure student learning outcomes, and they are likely to put accreditors at the top of the list.

Which is why it was so unexpected last week to hear a group of experts on student learning tell attendees at a regional accreditor’s conference here that most assessment activity to date has been a “hot mess” and that efforts to “measure” how much students learn should be used help individual students and improve the quality of instruction, not to judge the performance of colleges and universities.

The session took place at the Academic Resource Conference, the annual gathering of the WASC Senior College and University Commission, which accredits institutions in California, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. The panel’s title built off the conference’s theme of “provocative questions and courageous answers,” and asked, in regard to teaching, learning and assessment, “is higher education accomplishing what it said it would?”

Not surprisingly, given such a broadly framed question, the conversation that unfolded was wide ranging and, at times, scattershot. But at its core, the discussion revolved largely around whether the way most colleges currently have gone about trying to judge whether their students are learning (by defining student learning outcomes and finding some way to gauge whether they have achieved those goals) helps institutions (and helps higher education collectively) prove they are doing a good job.

The answers were pretty uniformly no, despite all the activity colleges have engaged in during the last decade.

“There’s a paradox that puzzles me and should puzzle all of us,” said John Etchemendy, former provost at Stanford University, who is also a commissioner of the Western accrediting commission and a member of the federal panel that advises the U.S. education secretary on accreditation. The evidence is unequivocal, he said, that “the answer to the question on the screen — is higher education accomplishing what it said it would? — is absolutely yes,” based on how much more college-goers earn over their lifetimes than Americans without a degree, among other indicators.

But “whenever we try to directly measure what students have learned, what they have gotten out of their education,” Etchemendy continued, “the effect is tiny, if any. We can see the overall effects, but we cannot show directly what it is, how it is that we’re changing the kids.”

Part of the problem, said Natasha Jankowski, director of the National Institute of Learning Outcomes Assessment, is defining what assessment is and what it isn’t — or, more precisely, differentiating between different kinds of assessment: that used for individual and institutional improvement and that used for external accountability purposes.

“There is assessment about informing my teaching” and students’ learning — understanding how students respond to or gain from certain kinds of content or instructional approaches, and developing evidence “that I would need to see to make a change in how I teach something,” she said.

“That’s very different from ‘have we [in higher education generally] been effective over time?'” Jankowski said. The latter requires marshaling “a variety of evidence” of performance on numerous fronts (economic as well as educational) to a range of audiences (politicians, accreditors, students and parents, employers, the public), and “one test or measure [of student learning] isn’t going to help us in that space.” (A 2007 essay in Inside Higher Ed, “Assessment for ‘Us’ and Assessment for ‘Them’” captured this conundrum well.)

Much of the assessment work in the last decade has focused on trying to develop quantifiable proof that institutions are helping their students, collectively, learn, with the aim of being able to create a measure of educational quality that was comparable across institutions. This push was often driven by accreditors’ pressure on colleges, which was driven in turn by federal government pressure on accreditors. (One participant in the Western accreditor’s panel, Jose F. Moreno, an associate professor of Latino education and policy studies at California State University at Long Beach, shared that when institutions like his were awaiting visits from the accreditor, they would often say “the WASC-itos were coming,” a belittling reference to hordes of regulators about to descend.)

That led to a form of what Jankowski called “assessment as bureaucratic machine,” which often resulted in institutions slapping together ill-conceived efforts to try to measure something to prove they were doing so.

“At a lot of places,” Jankowski said, “it was, ‘You need some learning outcomes — put something together.’ ‘What are learning outcomes?’ ‘I don’t care. Just fill this out.’

“It’s not just that faculty members are crabby and hate change … There are good reasons why faculty hate it. It’s real and it’s earned,” Jankowski said. (An Inside Higher Ed survey of faculty members last year, for instance, found that 59 percent of respondents agreed that assessment efforts “seem primarily focused on satisfying outside groups such as accreditors or politicians,” rather than serving students.) Essays like this also reflect faculty disdain.

It’s time for those in the assessment field to “own up to the fact that everyone had a first-round ‘hot mess’ go of it,” she said. “We had a round of assessment that was really detrimental, incredibly measurement focused.”

What Might Round 2 Look Like?

No one on the panel was arguing that teaching and learning are unimportant or that college officials and faculties shouldn’t be regularly analyzing how well both things are happening in their classrooms — far from it.

But “we need to worry less about the architectonic of how assessment works,” Etchemendy said, and more about periodically checking “whether we’re teaching what we’re trying to achieve, and is the design still a good design, or maybe times have changed.

“If we discover that our class is not working or that our students are not getting what we want them to get out of the class, then I would think we would all try to change it. Those are the good parts of assessment, and I think anybody can buy in to that.”

If efforts to measure student learning in a quantifiable way have been counterproductive, what should constructive assessment look like?

It should start, Jankowski and others said, with understanding what an institution (or an instructor, at the granular level) wants students to know and be able to do.

Sharon B. Hamill, a professor of developmental psychology and faculty director of the Institute for Palliative Care at California State University at San Marcos, suggested a form of “backward design,” focused on “where do I want them to end up, and then how do I help them get there,” she said. “Think to yourself, ‘if they don’t remember another thing, they’ll remember this.'”

Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and former Obama administration official who has railed against what he calls the “inane” focus on student learning outcomes, attended the Western accreditor’s session and later led another called Improving Assessment by Putting a Leash on the Dogma. He said institutions should focus on making sure students are persisting in their academic programs and understanding what’s impeding those who don’t.

Focusing on outcomes like that don’t necessarily capture the amount or quality of the learning, since institutions have been known to let students continue through their programs without demanding much in return.

The best way to gauge that, Shireman said, is to do “random checks of artifacts of the teaching and learning process (student work, instructor feedback, etc.). Ideally, portfolios of student work, not cherry-picked, would be available for public review (or at least external peer review). This should be arranged by the school but checked by accreditors.” Such an approach would be designed, he said, to protect against diploma mills or other lesser-quality institutions.

But how might one go about answering the question that the Western accreditor’s session started with: “Is higher education accomplishing what it said it would?” If it’s not with assessment of student learning outcomes at the course or institutional level, it should be with “external, objective measures that measure indirectly program and institutional success — things that can’t be fudged,” Etchemendy said.

“Whether they graduate; whether they manage high-, well-paying jobs 10 to 15 years out, are they repaying their loans, what do they think about their institutions?” he said. “Those are the things I’m really interested in measuring.”

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GARDEN GROVE, Calif. -- Ask the many assessment haters in higher education who is most to blame for what they perceive as the fixation on trying to measure student learning outcomes, and they are likely to put accreditors at the top of the list.

Which is why it was so unexpected last week to hear a group of experts on student learning tell attendees at a regional accreditor's conference here that most assessment activity to date has been a "hot mess" and that efforts to "measure" how much students learn should be used help individual students and improve the quality of instruction, not to judge the performance of colleges and universities.

The session took place at the Academic Resource Conference, the annual gathering of the WASC Senior College and University Commission, which accredits institutions in California, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. The panel's title built off the conference's theme of "provocative questions and courageous answers," and asked, in regard to teaching, learning and assessment, "is higher education accomplishing what it said it would?"

Not surprisingly, given such a broadly framed question, the conversation that unfolded was wide ranging and, at times, scattershot. But at its core, the discussion revolved largely around whether the way most colleges currently have gone about trying to judge whether their students are learning (by defining student learning outcomes and finding some way to gauge whether they have achieved those goals) helps institutions (and helps higher education collectively) prove they are doing a good job.

The answers were pretty uniformly no, despite all the activity colleges have engaged in during the last decade.

"There's a paradox that puzzles me and should puzzle all of us," said John Etchemendy, former provost at Stanford University, who is also a commissioner of the Western accrediting commission and a member of the federal panel that advises the U.S. education secretary on accreditation. The evidence is unequivocal, he said, that "the answer to the question on the screen -- is higher education accomplishing what it said it would? -- is absolutely yes," based on how much more college-goers earn over their lifetimes than Americans without a degree, among other indicators.

But "whenever we try to directly measure what students have learned, what they have gotten out of their education," Etchemendy continued, "the effect is tiny, if any. We can see the overall effects, but we cannot show directly what it is, how it is that we’re changing the kids."

Part of the problem, said Natasha Jankowski, director of the National Institute of Learning Outcomes Assessment, is defining what assessment is and what it isn't -- or, more precisely, differentiating between different kinds of assessment: that used for individual and institutional improvement and that used for external accountability purposes.

"There is assessment about informing my teaching" and students' learning -- understanding how students respond to or gain from certain kinds of content or instructional approaches, and developing evidence "that I would need to see to make a change in how I teach something," she said.

"That's very different from 'have we [in higher education generally] been effective over time?'" Jankowski said. The latter requires marshaling "a variety of evidence" of performance on numerous fronts (economic as well as educational) to a range of audiences (politicians, accreditors, students and parents, employers, the public), and "one test or measure [of student learning] isn't going to help us in that space." (A 2007 essay in Inside Higher Ed, "Assessment for 'Us' and Assessment for 'Them'" captured this conundrum well.)

Much of the assessment work in the last decade has focused on trying to develop quantifiable proof that institutions are helping their students, collectively, learn, with the aim of being able to create a measure of educational quality that was comparable across institutions. This push was often driven by accreditors' pressure on colleges, which was driven in turn by federal government pressure on accreditors. (One participant in the Western accreditor's panel, Jose F. Moreno, an associate professor of Latino education and policy studies at California State University at Long Beach, shared that when institutions like his were awaiting visits from the accreditor, they would often say "the WASC-itos were coming," a belittling reference to hordes of regulators about to descend.)

That led to a form of what Jankowski called "assessment as bureaucratic machine," which often resulted in institutions slapping together ill-conceived efforts to try to measure something to prove they were doing so.

"At a lot of places," Jankowski said, "it was, 'You need some learning outcomes -- put something together.' 'What are learning outcomes?' 'I don't care. Just fill this out.'

"It's not just that faculty members are crabby and hate change … There are good reasons why faculty hate it. It's real and it's earned," Jankowski said. (An Inside Higher Ed survey of faculty members last year, for instance, found that 59 percent of respondents agreed that assessment efforts "seem primarily focused on satisfying outside groups such as accreditors or politicians," rather than serving students.) Essays like this also reflect faculty disdain.

It's time for those in the assessment field to "own up to the fact that everyone had a first-round 'hot mess' go of it," she said. "We had a round of assessment that was really detrimental, incredibly measurement focused."

What Might Round 2 Look Like?

No one on the panel was arguing that teaching and learning are unimportant or that college officials and faculties shouldn't be regularly analyzing how well both things are happening in their classrooms -- far from it.

But "we need to worry less about the architectonic of how assessment works," Etchemendy said, and more about periodically checking "whether we’re teaching what we’re trying to achieve, and is the design still a good design, or maybe times have changed.

"If we discover that our class is not working or that our students are not getting what we want them to get out of the class, then I would think we would all try to change it. Those are the good parts of assessment, and I think anybody can buy in to that."

If efforts to measure student learning in a quantifiable way have been counterproductive, what should constructive assessment look like?

It should start, Jankowski and others said, with understanding what an institution (or an instructor, at the granular level) wants students to know and be able to do.

Sharon B. Hamill, a professor of developmental psychology and faculty director of the Institute for Palliative Care at California State University at San Marcos, suggested a form of "backward design," focused on "where do I want them to end up, and then how do I help them get there," she said. "Think to yourself, 'if they don’t remember another thing, they’ll remember this.'"

Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and former Obama administration official who has railed against what he calls the "inane" focus on student learning outcomes, attended the Western accreditor's session and later led another called Improving Assessment by Putting a Leash on the Dogma. He said institutions should focus on making sure students are persisting in their academic programs and understanding what's impeding those who don't.

Focusing on outcomes like that don't necessarily capture the amount or quality of the learning, since institutions have been known to let students continue through their programs without demanding much in return.

The best way to gauge that, Shireman said, is to do "random checks of artifacts of the teaching and learning process (student work, instructor feedback, etc.). Ideally, portfolios of student work, not cherry-picked, would be available for public review (or at least external peer review). This should be arranged by the school but checked by accreditors." Such an approach would be designed, he said, to protect against diploma mills or other lesser-quality institutions.

But how might one go about answering the question that the Western accreditor's session started with: "Is higher education accomplishing what it said it would?" If it's not with assessment of student learning outcomes at the course or institutional level, it should be with "external, objective measures that measure indirectly program and institutional success -- things that can’t be fudged," Etchemendy said.

"Whether they graduate; whether they manage high-, well-paying jobs 10 to 15 years out, are they repaying their loans, what do they think about their institutions?" he said. "Those are the things I’m really interested in measuring."

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Connecticut community colleges faculty and administration at odds over proposed consolidation

Despite faculty opposition, the leader of Connecticut’s public colleges and universities is moving forward with plans to consolidate the state’s 12 two-year institutions.

Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, presented his plan to consolidate the administrative functions of the community colleges to the system’s accreditor April 11. This was the second time that he presents a plan to the accreditor, the New England Commission of Higher Education. When Ojakian originally proposed the consolidation plan nearly a year ago, the commission said it was not “persuaded that planning for the new Community College of Connecticut as outlined … is realistic.”

“When we meet with NECHE, it’s to provide a status report on our progress since we heard from them last year,” Ojakian said. “We can assure them we’re on the right path and receiving guidance accordingly … We’re following their guidance that we should look and act like one accredited institution.”

Ojakian’s consolidation proposal, also known as Students First, would place the 12 colleges and their satellite campuses under a single, centrally managed authority. Instead of 12 separate presidents for each college, the proposal creates three regional president positions. Six finalists for the positions were announced in March. According to the proposal, faculty, academic and student affairs staff would not be affected, but about 23 percent of the 750 administrative staff positions in the system would be cut. Ojakian said some of those positions would initially be reduced through employee retirements.

The single community college entity would be in place by 2023 and would save the 12 colleges a total of $23 million a year, Ojakian said.

“We’ve already realized some of the savings because as individuals have retired, we’ve replaced them with positions that would be part of the new organization,” Ojakian said, adding that the savings from retirements so far have come to about $4 million.

“The more critical piece to this is the student success piece,” he said. “How much additional revenue can we bring into the system because it’s easier for students to enroll, stay and complete?”

Faculty members who oppose the plan — many of whom call themselves “reluctant warriors” — question the cost-saving estimates of Ojakian and his administration and have called on state lawmakers to intervene. Last month, students and faculty protested the plan and presented Governor Ned Lamont, a Democrat, with a petition of more than 1,300 signatures opposing it.

“I don’t understand why the Legislature is accepting the numbers being thrown out by the system office and Ojakian,” said Lois Aime, president of the Norwalk Community College Senate and director of educational technology at the institution. “Why isn’t anybody looking for an outside auditing agency to look at this?”

Aime and some other faculty members have complained that they have not been able to view the financial information Ojakian used to determine his estimates.

State lawmakers are examining the statements Ojakian and other system administrators have made about the cost of the consolidation and the savings it could bring the colleges. Faculty members opposed to the consolidation have lobbied the Legislature to stop the consolidation or at least slow down the process. A bill that would require the Legislature to approve the consolidation or closing of any CSCU institutions is awaiting action in the State Senate.

“The Legislature should have some control over this because we’re dealing with public higher education,” Aime said. “The Board of Regents don’t answer to anybody, and they aren’t elected.”

Ojakian opposes the bill and warns that inviting more legislative oversight of the system would politicize the system’s decision making. He said community colleges in districts with a smaller number of legislative delegates would lose out under a system that allows input from lawmakers.

“That does nobody any good, and it does a disservice to students,” he said

CSCU and its Board of Regents were created in 2011, when lawmakers merged the state’s community colleges with its universities and Charter Oak State College, an online institution. Nine of the 15 voting board members are appointed by the governor, four are appointed by the Legislature and two students are selected by their peers.

Matthew Warshauer, a history professor at Central Connecticut State University, said the bill will not stop the consolidation but is a good first step to confronting Ojakian’s proposal. Warshauer said he’s not opposed to consolidating some administrative functions in the system, or to Ojakian as the system’s president, but he is worried that centralizing management of the community colleges would lead to micromanagement and less academic freedom for instructors at the colleges, and eventually for those at the four state universities.

Faculty groups in the state are opposed to Ojakian’s plan for several reasons. They fear the colleges will lose their individual cultural identities and unique academic programs. Faculty members are also are concerned the colleges will be forced to deliver uniform programs whether or not they meet local work-force demands. Warshauer said faculty also fear that moving to a single accreditation process could jeopardize the individual accreditation of each the colleges, which are currently on different accreditation schedules.

Warshauer also said much of the streamlining that Ojakian proposed could be done without the centralization plan.

“The problem has never been that the community colleges or state universities are poor stewards of state money,” he said. “The problem is clear: the Legislature is putting fewer dollars in education because our state is in economic trouble.”

A report last year from EAB, an educational research and technology services company, found that per-student state spending for college students was below pre-recession levels across the country. State spending on Connecticut students decreased by 12.6 percent from 2008 to 2017, according to the report.

Warshauer said the system, the regents and the faculty should be working together to help the system become more efficient and put the colleges on better financial footing, but instead Ojakian’s answer has been to “blow up the system and remake it.”

The total combined enrollment in the state’s community colleges is at a 10-year low, although some colleges are seeing an increase in students. Overall enrollment was 51,105 students in 2008; that number fell to 47,912 students in 2018, according to CSCU data. Enrollment was highest in 2010 at 58,253 students. System administrators project enrollment will decline an additional 8 percent in the next decade. Community colleges nationally have projected that their enrollments will continue to decline over the next several years.

Ojakian said budget shortfalls will only compound the problem.

“The governor’s budget proposal that was released in February flat funded us,” he said. “But even being flat funded, our community colleges are poised to end next fiscal year with a $25 million shortfall.”

If the financial and enrollment problems worsen then someone will have to decide which of the 12 colleges and four satellite campuses continue to exist, he said.

“Somebody will have to pick winners and losers, and it won’t be me,” he said.

The CSCU board approved a 5 percent tuition increase at the state universities last month. Ojakian said over the next couple of weeks the board will consider increasing tuition at the community colleges.

“We will not balance the burden of our deficit on the backs of students,” he said.

During a recent legislative hearing on the consolidation, Barbara Brittingham, president of NECHE, the colleges’ accreditor, wouldn’t comment on the steps Ojakian has taken, but she said he has been in regular contact with the commission to “avoid surprises.”

“This is a very big deal, and I don’t know of any other merger as ambitious as the one being planned here,” she said. “It’ll be interesting to see how the commission continues to work with the system, assuming they go forward.”

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Despite faculty opposition, the leader of Connecticut’s public colleges and universities is moving forward with plans to consolidate the state's 12 two-year institutions.

Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, presented his plan to consolidate the administrative functions of the community colleges to the system's accreditor April 11. This was the second time that he presents a plan to the accreditor, the New England Commission of Higher Education. When Ojakian originally proposed the consolidation plan nearly a year ago, the commission said it was not "persuaded that planning for the new Community College of Connecticut as outlined … is realistic."

“When we meet with NECHE, it’s to provide a status report on our progress since we heard from them last year,” Ojakian said. “We can assure them we’re on the right path and receiving guidance accordingly … We’re following their guidance that we should look and act like one accredited institution.”

Ojakian’s consolidation proposal, also known as Students First, would place the 12 colleges and their satellite campuses under a single, centrally managed authority. Instead of 12 separate presidents for each college, the proposal creates three regional president positions. Six finalists for the positions were announced in March. According to the proposal, faculty, academic and student affairs staff would not be affected, but about 23 percent of the 750 administrative staff positions in the system would be cut. Ojakian said some of those positions would initially be reduced through employee retirements.

The single community college entity would be in place by 2023 and would save the 12 colleges a total of $23 million a year, Ojakian said.

“We’ve already realized some of the savings because as individuals have retired, we’ve replaced them with positions that would be part of the new organization,” Ojakian said, adding that the savings from retirements so far have come to about $4 million.

“The more critical piece to this is the student success piece,” he said. “How much additional revenue can we bring into the system because it’s easier for students to enroll, stay and complete?”

Faculty members who oppose the plan -- many of whom call themselves “reluctant warriors” -- question the cost-saving estimates of Ojakian and his administration and have called on state lawmakers to intervene. Last month, students and faculty protested the plan and presented Governor Ned Lamont, a Democrat, with a petition of more than 1,300 signatures opposing it.

“I don’t understand why the Legislature is accepting the numbers being thrown out by the system office and Ojakian,” said Lois Aime, president of the Norwalk Community College Senate and director of educational technology at the institution. “Why isn’t anybody looking for an outside auditing agency to look at this?”

Aime and some other faculty members have complained that they have not been able to view the financial information Ojakian used to determine his estimates.

State lawmakers are examining the statements Ojakian and other system administrators have made about the cost of the consolidation and the savings it could bring the colleges. Faculty members opposed to the consolidation have lobbied the Legislature to stop the consolidation or at least slow down the process. A bill that would require the Legislature to approve the consolidation or closing of any CSCU institutions is awaiting action in the State Senate.

“The Legislature should have some control over this because we’re dealing with public higher education,” Aime said. “The Board of Regents don’t answer to anybody, and they aren’t elected.”

Ojakian opposes the bill and warns that inviting more legislative oversight of the system would politicize the system's decision making. He said community colleges in districts with a smaller number of legislative delegates would lose out under a system that allows input from lawmakers.

“That does nobody any good, and it does a disservice to students,” he said

CSCU and its Board of Regents were created in 2011, when lawmakers merged the state's community colleges with its universities and Charter Oak State College, an online institution. Nine of the 15 voting board members are appointed by the governor, four are appointed by the Legislature and two students are selected by their peers.

Matthew Warshauer, a history professor at Central Connecticut State University, said the bill will not stop the consolidation but is a good first step to confronting Ojakian’s proposal. Warshauer said he’s not opposed to consolidating some administrative functions in the system, or to Ojakian as the system’s president, but he is worried that centralizing management of the community colleges would lead to micromanagement and less academic freedom for instructors at the colleges, and eventually for those at the four state universities.

Faculty groups in the state are opposed to Ojakian’s plan for several reasons. They fear the colleges will lose their individual cultural identities and unique academic programs. Faculty members are also are concerned the colleges will be forced to deliver uniform programs whether or not they meet local work-force demands. Warshauer said faculty also fear that moving to a single accreditation process could jeopardize the individual accreditation of each the colleges, which are currently on different accreditation schedules.

Warshauer also said much of the streamlining that Ojakian proposed could be done without the centralization plan.

“The problem has never been that the community colleges or state universities are poor stewards of state money,” he said. “The problem is clear: the Legislature is putting fewer dollars in education because our state is in economic trouble.”

A report last year from EAB, an educational research and technology services company, found that per-student state spending for college students was below pre-recession levels across the country. State spending on Connecticut students decreased by 12.6 percent from 2008 to 2017, according to the report.

Warshauer said the system, the regents and the faculty should be working together to help the system become more efficient and put the colleges on better financial footing, but instead Ojakian’s answer has been to "blow up the system and remake it."

The total combined enrollment in the state’s community colleges is at a 10-year low, although some colleges are seeing an increase in students. Overall enrollment was 51,105 students in 2008; that number fell to 47,912 students in 2018, according to CSCU data. Enrollment was highest in 2010 at 58,253 students. System administrators project enrollment will decline an additional 8 percent in the next decade. Community colleges nationally have projected that their enrollments will continue to decline over the next several years.

Ojakian said budget shortfalls will only compound the problem.

“The governor’s budget proposal that was released in February flat funded us,” he said. “But even being flat funded, our community colleges are poised to end next fiscal year with a $25 million shortfall.”

If the financial and enrollment problems worsen then someone will have to decide which of the 12 colleges and four satellite campuses continue to exist, he said.

“Somebody will have to pick winners and losers, and it won’t be me,” he said.

The CSCU board approved a 5 percent tuition increase at the state universities last month. Ojakian said over the next couple of weeks the board will consider increasing tuition at the community colleges.

“We will not balance the burden of our deficit on the backs of students,” he said.

During a recent legislative hearing on the consolidation, Barbara Brittingham, president of NECHE, the colleges' accreditor, wouldn't comment on the steps Ojakian has taken, but she said he has been in regular contact with the commission to “avoid surprises.”

“This is a very big deal, and I don’t know of any other merger as ambitious as the one being planned here,” she said. “It’ll be interesting to see how the commission continues to work with the system, assuming they go forward.”

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University of the Arts rejects calls to fire Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia has long been a controversial figure in and out of academe — best known in the world of scholarship for Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (Yale University Press). She is also a professor at the University of the Arts — and some students there are urging that she be fired. Paglia is a target because of her statements criticizing some women who bring charges of sexual assault, and because of her comments about transgender people.

Her comments won’t surprise those who have watched her career, but they have led to more controversy on campus than she has faced in the past. The university’s president, without naming her, issued a strong statement defending academic freedom — a statement that Paglia is praising as a model of the way college leaders should respond to demands that faculty members be fired for their statements.

Paglia’s comments on the Me Too movement came in a recent YouTube video.

In the video, she criticizes “girls” who are “coached” about complaints they bring, and she focuses on college students and those who bring a complaint of rape months after an incident over “a mistake they may make at a fraternity party.” She said bringing complaints in this way “is not feminism” but is part of a “bourgeois culture of excuses.”

Critics also point to comments Paglia made in a 2017 interview with The Weekly Standard in which she touched on transgender issues.

“It is certainly ironic how liberals who posture as defenders of science when it comes to global warming (a sentimental myth unsupported by evidence) flee all reference to biology when it comes to gender. Biology has been programmatically excluded from women’s studies and gender studies programs for almost 50 years now. Thus very few current gender studies professors and theorists, here and abroad, are intellectually or scientifically prepared to teach their subjects,” she said. “The cold biological truth is that sex changes are impossible. Every single cell of the human body remains coded with one’s birth gender for life. Intersex ambiguities can occur, but they are developmental anomalies that represent a tiny proportion of all human births.”

Paglia has said that she supports equal rights and does not object to people defining their sexual orientations and gender identities as they wish — including in ways frowned upon by traditionalists. But she has defended the right of scholars to question some of the stances taken by some who support transgender rights. Via email, she said that she identifies as being transgender — and that she regularly talks about the great contributions made to art and society by people who cross gender boundaries.

The petition demanding her ouster says that “in recent interviews she has blatantly mocked survivors of sexual assault and the #MeToo movement, and in classes and interviews has mocked and degraded transgender individuals.”

Further, the petition says, “Camille Paglia should be removed from UArts faculty and replaced by a queer person of color. If, due to tenure, it is absolutely illegal to remove her, then the university must at least offer alternate sections of the classes she teaches, instead taught by professors who respect transgender students and survivors of sexual assault.”

And the petition criticizes David Yager, president of the university, saying that he should apologize “for his wildly ignorant and hypocritical letter.”

That letter was distributed as students started urging the dismissal of Paglia, but made no mention of her or her statements.

“Unfortunately, as a society we are living in a time of sharp divisions — of opinions, perspectives and beliefs — and that has led to decreased civility, increased anger and a ‘new normal’ of offense given and taken,” Yager wrote. “Across our nation it is all too common that opinions expressed that differ from another’s — especially those that are controversial — can spark passion and even outrage, often resulting in calls to suppress that speech. That simply cannot be allowed to happen.

“I firmly believe that limiting the range of voices in society erodes our democracy. Universities, moreover, are at the heart of the revolutionary notion of free expression: promoting the free exchange of ideas is part of the core reason for their existence. That open interchange of opinions and beliefs includes all members of the UArts community: faculty, students and staff, in and out of the classroom. We are dedicated to fostering a climate conducive to respectful intellectual debate that empowers and equips our students to meet the challenges they will face in their futures.”

And the letter added, with reference to the mission of the University of the Arts, “I believe this resolve holds even greater importance at an art school. Artists over the centuries have suffered censorship, and even persecution, for the expression of their beliefs through their work. My answer is simple: not now, not at UArts.”

Paglia said via email that she considered the protests against her “a publicity stunt” by people who do not understand her ideas.

She praised her university president’s “eloquent statement affirming academic freedom [as] a landmark in contemporary education.” And she said she hoped other colleges would view the statement as a model for how to “deal with their rampant problem of compulsory ideological conformity.”

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Camille Paglia has long been a controversial figure in and out of academe -- best known in the world of scholarship for Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (Yale University Press). She is also a professor at the University of the Arts -- and some students there are urging that she be fired. Paglia is a target because of her statements criticizing some women who bring charges of sexual assault, and because of her comments about transgender people.

Her comments won't surprise those who have watched her career, but they have led to more controversy on campus than she has faced in the past. The university's president, without naming her, issued a strong statement defending academic freedom -- a statement that Paglia is praising as a model of the way college leaders should respond to demands that faculty members be fired for their statements.

Paglia's comments on the Me Too movement came in a recent YouTube video.

In the video, she criticizes "girls" who are "coached" about complaints they bring, and she focuses on college students and those who bring a complaint of rape months after an incident over "a mistake they may make at a fraternity party." She said bringing complaints in this way "is not feminism" but is part of a "bourgeois culture of excuses."

Critics also point to comments Paglia made in a 2017 interview with The Weekly Standard in which she touched on transgender issues.

"It is certainly ironic how liberals who posture as defenders of science when it comes to global warming (a sentimental myth unsupported by evidence) flee all reference to biology when it comes to gender. Biology has been programmatically excluded from women's studies and gender studies programs for almost 50 years now. Thus very few current gender studies professors and theorists, here and abroad, are intellectually or scientifically prepared to teach their subjects," she said. "The cold biological truth is that sex changes are impossible. Every single cell of the human body remains coded with one's birth gender for life. Intersex ambiguities can occur, but they are developmental anomalies that represent a tiny proportion of all human births."

Paglia has said that she supports equal rights and does not object to people defining their sexual orientations and gender identities as they wish -- including in ways frowned upon by traditionalists. But she has defended the right of scholars to question some of the stances taken by some who support transgender rights. Via email, she said that she identifies as being transgender -- and that she regularly talks about the great contributions made to art and society by people who cross gender boundaries.

The petition demanding her ouster says that "in recent interviews she has blatantly mocked survivors of sexual assault and the #MeToo movement, and in classes and interviews has mocked and degraded transgender individuals."

Further, the petition says, "Camille Paglia should be removed from UArts faculty and replaced by a queer person of color. If, due to tenure, it is absolutely illegal to remove her, then the university must at least offer alternate sections of the classes she teaches, instead taught by professors who respect transgender students and survivors of sexual assault."

And the petition criticizes David Yager, president of the university, saying that he should apologize "for his wildly ignorant and hypocritical letter."

That letter was distributed as students started urging the dismissal of Paglia, but made no mention of her or her statements.

"Unfortunately, as a society we are living in a time of sharp divisions -- of opinions, perspectives and beliefs -- and that has led to decreased civility, increased anger and a 'new normal' of offense given and taken," Yager wrote. "Across our nation it is all too common that opinions expressed that differ from another’s -- especially those that are controversial -- can spark passion and even outrage, often resulting in calls to suppress that speech. That simply cannot be allowed to happen.

"I firmly believe that limiting the range of voices in society erodes our democracy. Universities, moreover, are at the heart of the revolutionary notion of free expression: promoting the free exchange of ideas is part of the core reason for their existence. That open interchange of opinions and beliefs includes all members of the UArts community: faculty, students and staff, in and out of the classroom. We are dedicated to fostering a climate conducive to respectful intellectual debate that empowers and equips our students to meet the challenges they will face in their futures."

And the letter added, with reference to the mission of the University of the Arts, "I believe this resolve holds even greater importance at an art school. Artists over the centuries have suffered censorship, and even persecution, for the expression of their beliefs through their work. My answer is simple: not now, not at UArts."

Paglia said via email that she considered the protests against her "a publicity stunt" by people who do not understand her ideas.

She praised her university president's "eloquent statement affirming academic freedom [as] a landmark in contemporary education." And she said she hoped other colleges would view the statement as a model for how to "deal with their rampant problem of compulsory ideological conformity."

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Med school at Washington University St. Louis will be tuition-free for more than half of new students

Last summer New York University‘s medical school, where the sticker price on tuition was more than $55,000 a year, announced that all current and new students would henceforth receive full-tuition scholarships.

One question raised by the move was whether top medical schools would match NYU’s new policy.

On Tuesday, another leading medical school — at Washington University in St. Louisannounced that it was going to spend $100 million so that more than half of its new students from now on will not pay tuition. Currently, only about 20 of the students in an M.D. class of 120 receive full-tuition scholarships. Those not receiving full scholarships in the future will be able to receive partial scholarships. (Under a tuition plan that assures students the same rates for four years, Wash U currently charges $65,044 a year for tuition, with total costs of more than $85,000.)

The awards will be made both on the basis of financial need and measures of academic merit.

Washington University officials said that they have been making progress at limiting student debt, but that efforts to date have not been enough. The average debt of Washington University School of Medicine graduates over the past five years has been $99,088, compared to a national median of $166,239. Many have argued that high debt levels — coupled with relatively low pay new M.D.s receive during their residencies — discourage new doctors from jobs in which they may treat the disadvantaged or work in rural or other locations lacking enough medical care.

According to statistics from the Association of American Medical Colleges, three-quarters of the Class of 2017 had debt. Among those who had borrowed, median indebtedness rose 1 percent, to $192,000. About half of students, 48 percent, borrowed $200,000 or more — and 46 percent planned to enter a loan forgiveness or repayment program.

Completely tuition-free medical education isn’t unheard-of. Sometimes new medical colleges adopt such policies to attract students, but this is typically for a limited time period. Other institutions have made pushes for some designated share of the class to receive full-tuition scholarships.

About 20 percent of students at the David Geffen School of Medicine of the University of California, Los Angeles, are awarded scholarships that cover all expenses — tuition, room and board, books and supplies, and more. The scholarships are awarded based on measures of academic merit, not financial need.

When NYU announced its plans last year, some critics questioned whether all medical students needed the same levels of help. An essay in Slate called the move “at best, a well-intentioned waste — an expensive, unnecessary subsidy for elite medical grads who already stand to make a killing one day as anesthesiologists and orthopedic surgeons.”

Eva Aagaard, senior associate dean for education at Washington University, said via email that the university does hope to encourage medical students to look for a range of careers and that curricular changes will spotlight the value of such careers.

But she also said it may not be realistic to target aid to new medical students based on later career goals. “Students rarely know their career plans at the time of entry into medical school, and many students change their minds,” she said. “We do look at interest and potential in academics, including interest in teaching, research and community engagement/advocacy, as part of the selection process both for the school and for the non-need-based aid.”

NYU officials said it was too early to know how the new class of students will be different from prior classes. Many medical education experts have speculated that NYU may attract some students who in prior years might have gone to other medical schools.

But NYU saw major gains in its applicant pool, and in particular from groups that have not been flocking the medical schools. NYU Med saw a 102 percent increase, to 2,020, in applications from those who are a member of a group that is underrepresented in medicine (including black, Latino and Native American students). The largest percentage increase was among those who identify as African American, black or Afro-Caribbean. Applications from this group went up 142 percent, to 1,062.

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Last summer New York University's medical school, where the sticker price on tuition was more than $55,000 a year, announced that all current and new students would henceforth receive full-tuition scholarships.

One question raised by the move was whether top medical schools would match NYU's new policy.

On Tuesday, another leading medical school -- at Washington University in St. Louis -- announced that it was going to spend $100 million so that more than half of its new students from now on will not pay tuition. Currently, only about 20 of the students in an M.D. class of 120 receive full-tuition scholarships. Those not receiving full scholarships in the future will be able to receive partial scholarships. (Under a tuition plan that assures students the same rates for four years, Wash U currently charges $65,044 a year for tuition, with total costs of more than $85,000.)

The awards will be made both on the basis of financial need and measures of academic merit.

Washington University officials said that they have been making progress at limiting student debt, but that efforts to date have not been enough. The average debt of Washington University School of Medicine graduates over the past five years has been $99,088, compared to a national median of $166,239. Many have argued that high debt levels -- coupled with relatively low pay new M.D.s receive during their residencies -- discourage new doctors from jobs in which they may treat the disadvantaged or work in rural or other locations lacking enough medical care.

According to statistics from the Association of American Medical Colleges, three-quarters of the Class of 2017 had debt. Among those who had borrowed, median indebtedness rose 1 percent, to $192,000. About half of students, 48 percent, borrowed $200,000 or more -- and 46 percent planned to enter a loan forgiveness or repayment program.

Completely tuition-free medical education isn't unheard-of. Sometimes new medical colleges adopt such policies to attract students, but this is typically for a limited time period. Other institutions have made pushes for some designated share of the class to receive full-tuition scholarships.

About 20 percent of students at the David Geffen School of Medicine of the University of California, Los Angeles, are awarded scholarships that cover all expenses -- tuition, room and board, books and supplies, and more. The scholarships are awarded based on measures of academic merit, not financial need.

When NYU announced its plans last year, some critics questioned whether all medical students needed the same levels of help. An essay in Slate called the move "at best, a well-intentioned waste -- an expensive, unnecessary subsidy for elite medical grads who already stand to make a killing one day as anesthesiologists and orthopedic surgeons."

Eva Aagaard, senior associate dean for education at Washington University, said via email that the university does hope to encourage medical students to look for a range of careers and that curricular changes will spotlight the value of such careers.

But she also said it may not be realistic to target aid to new medical students based on later career goals. "Students rarely know their career plans at the time of entry into medical school, and many students change their minds," she said. "We do look at interest and potential in academics, including interest in teaching, research and community engagement/advocacy, as part of the selection process both for the school and for the non-need-based aid."

NYU officials said it was too early to know how the new class of students will be different from prior classes. Many medical education experts have speculated that NYU may attract some students who in prior years might have gone to other medical schools.

But NYU saw major gains in its applicant pool, and in particular from groups that have not been flocking the medical schools. NYU Med saw a 102 percent increase, to 2,020, in applications from those who are a member of a group that is underrepresented in medicine (including black, Latino and Native American students). The largest percentage increase was among those who identify as African American, black or Afro-Caribbean. Applications from this group went up 142 percent, to 1,062.

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