Education Researchers' Group Splits Over Handling of Symposium on 'Nessie' Survey

October 06, 2011

The president of the nation's leading association of higher-education researchers has come under fire from several of her predecessors in that job over her decision to cancel a coming conference symposium featuring critics of the National Survey of Student Engagement, which is heavily used to measure colleges' progress in serving undergraduates.

In a letter e-mailed on Tuesday to Linda Serra Hagedorn, president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, six former presidents of the group urged her to reconsider her cancellation of the conference session, which had been slated to feature the director of the influential annual survey and several scholars who had recently provoked controversy within the association by publishing articles in its journal questioning the survey's validity.

The letter argues that Ms. Hagedorn's decision to cancel the planned session "cuts to the heart of what academic freedom is about" and denies association members a chance to hear discussion of important policy issues raised by critics of the survey, which is widely known as "Nessie," after the acronym NSSE.

"Though we know it was not your intention, to cancel the session seems to censor some ideas and scholarship in favor of others," the letter says. "As individual scholars, our work should be aired and judged according to its merits, not by whether it offends someone, is controversial, or whether it accords equal time to opposing points of view."

The former president who was the driving force behind the letter was Gary Rhoades, who until June served as general secretary of the American Association of University Professors and helped oversee the association's efforts to defend academic freedom at colleges. The full list of the signatories, who account for six of the group's 24 living past presidents, was not on the copy of the letter made available to The Chronicle, but it includes Estela Mara Bensimon, a co-director of the Center for Urban Education at the University of Southern California. Other former presidents were expected to sign the letter after it was sent.

In an interview on Wednesday, Ms. Hagedorn defended her decision to cancel the session, which had been planned for the group's annual conference, in Charlotte, N.C., next month. She said many of the association's members had objected to the criticisms of NSSE and its administrators that were published in the latest special issue of group's journal, The Review of Higher Education, and she believed the planned symposium "would have upset a lot of people" and been counterproductive. The authors of the papers in the Review "have had their say," she said.

Presidential Prerogatives

Ms. Hagedorn said she was within her rights as the group's president to cancel the conference event, a "presidential session" whose participants would have been billed as invited by the association's leadership to take part. "I am the president. I am in charge of putting together the program," she said. "I presented an invitation, I learned more, I took it back," she added. "I have that right to invite."

Asked about the letter signed by six former presidents, Ms. Hagedorn said, "there were many others that didn't sign it."

"Everything I did, including the cancellation of this session, had the approval of my board. I kept them apprised every step of the way," she said. "This is a tempest in a teapot."

In an open letter on the controversy e-mailed to the association's members on Thursday, Ms. Hagedorn reiterated that she did not plan to revive the conference session featuring NSSE critics, and instead planned to reorganize the invited session as she had initially envisioned it—to focus more broadly "on the limitations of large data sets" and to include representatives of NSSE, the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, the National Center for Education Statistics, and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, a nonprofit organization that advises colleges and state governments. She said she also was now planning a new conference session featuring speakers invited to discuss "academic discourse, critique, and academic freedom."

The letter to Ms. Hagedorn from the six former presidents had warned her that her cancellation of the conference session was "almost certain to ensure significant controversy about that decision," and "the cancellation of talks often brings greater attention and controversy to the speakers and issues involved than having gone ahead with an event as originally planned."

In the letter she sent to her members on Thursday, Ms. Hagedorn said that, as a result of the leaking of the former presidents' letter to The Chronicle, "yes, significant controversy is the outcome."

Invitation to Trouble?

The organizer of the planned conference session was Amaury Nora, editor of The Review of Higher Education and associate dean for research in the college of education at the University of Texas at San Antonio. The session was to focus on NSSE, which plays a significant role in influencing college operations, government policy, and students' enrollment decisions, while touching on other, similar survey instruments modeled after it, such as the Community College Survey of Student Engagement.

The list of planned participants included Alexander C. McCormick, who succeeded George D. Kuh, one of the developers of NSSE, as director of the survey in 2008. Also scheduled to speak were several contributors to the recent Review issue featuring papers criticizing the validity of such instruments, including Mr. Nora, Stephen R. Porter, a professor of higher education at North Carolina State University, and Michael A. Olivas, a professor of law at the University of Houston who wrote the issue's preface, the only part of it that had not been peer-reviewed.

In an e-mail to The Chronicle, Mr. Nora declined to comment on the controversy over the session, saying that the former presidents' letter to Ms. Hagedorn "was regarded as a private communication." He added: "There is an ongoing discussion on the reinstatement of the session and [I] would prefer to wait until that decision is made."

In interviews on Wednesday, Mr. McCormick and Ms. Hagedorn offered differing accounts of whether Mr. McCormick had ever agreed to participate in the session. Mr. McCormick said Mr. Nora had invited him to take part and to respond to the Review issue, which already was far along in the publication process, and he had subsequently discussed both a potential response to the journal issue and the planned symposium in a telephone conversation with Ms. Hagedorn. "With regards to the symposium, I expressed no inclination one way or the other," Mr. McCormick said. "My focus and my concentration was on responding to the written critique, and not the planned symposium."

In her interview, and in Thursday's open letter to the association's members, however, Ms. Hagedorn said Mr. Nora had told her in an e-mail that Mr. McCormick had agreed to participate in the planned symposium. When she discussed the symposium with Mr. McCormick after the Review issue came out, she said, "he did not want to proceed." She said, "He would have done it, but he was not comfortable, and I did not want to force anybody."

Mr. McCormick said the administrators of NSSE had requested an opportunity to respond in the recent Review issue to the other papers it contained, "and we were not given it." In a September 22 e-mail to Ms. Hagedorn, however, Mr. Olivas said Mr. Nora had invited such a response but had gone to press without it because none was offered in time.

The association has offered to publish such a response in its next issue, and NSSE administrators are preparing one, Mr. McCormick and Ms. Hagedorn said.

Surprise Attacks

Some of the papers critical of NSSE contained in the recent Review issue had been made public before. Among them, Mr. Porter's paper, which was presented at the association's 2009 annual conference, argues that NSSE asks many questions that are of dubious relevance, are too vague for the answers offered by students to be meaningful, or fail to take into account shortcomings in human memory and the difficulties involved in precisely measuring attitudes.

In a separate paper presented at the association's 2010 conference, Alberto F. Cabrera, a professor in the College of Education at the University of Maryland at College Park, and Corbin M. Campbell, a doctoral student there, challenge many of the survey's "benchmarks" as having a high percentage of error and as overlapping with one another.

What appears to have most aroused objections to the journal issue, however, was the preface written by Mr. Olivas, titled "If You Build It, They Will Assess It (or, An Open Letter to George Kuh, With Love and Respect)." Along with offering a somewhat casual and biting summary of the other critiques published in the journal, Mr. Olivas suggests that Mr. Kuh relied too heavily on his own work and gave short shrift to black and Hispanic scholars in summarizing research on student engagement in an article in the May 2011 issue of Research in Higher Education.

In an interview on Wednesday, Mr. Kuh said he was "surprised" by the contents of the Review issue but declined to offer any additional comment on the issue or the controversy over the scrapped session. "I have a self-imposed silence on it," he said.

Ms. Hagedorn, however, said when interviewed on Wednesday that she and members of the group's board had received numerous letters from association members saying they found the contents of the special issue to be offensive, and felt compelled to reach out to those criticized in it. In the open letter she sent to members on Thursday, she said some of the messages "asked for a thorough review of how the special issue came into being." Some association members, she said, felt Mr. Olivas's preface violated the group's stated code of ethics, which calls for members to be respectful of others and fair in their discussion of others' work. She wrote that "what appeared to be the biggest concern to many ASHE members was the perceived tone of the preface," which "some described as too personal."

Mr. Olivas had offered to forgo participation in the symposium in response to such criticisms, but Ms. Hagedorn was not swayed from her decision.

Ms. Hagedorn's letter to the members said that, in response to concerns raised about the recent Review issue, she planned to appoint a committee to recommend a process for handling grievances against association publications and "suggest guiding principles that will hopefully prevent misunderstandings in the future."

Mr. Porter of North Carolina State said he was "disappointed" about the decision to cancel the session involving him. He asked, "What does it say for us as an association if we cannot hold a critical discussion over an important policy issue like this?"