Administration

The Week: What You Need to Know About the Past 7 Days

February 21, 2016

Beyond Repair

Is the federal student-aid system so broken that it can’t be fixed? New America, a think tank that devotes a lot of its thought to education, says it is. In a paper called "Starting From Scratch," the group’s higher-education-policy team last week proposed ditching the whole tangled mess of federal grants, loans, and tuition tax credits, and replacing it with formula-driven grants to states.

States would be eligible to participate, the paper says, if they promised to keep their higher-education funding "at a level equal to the average of the last five years," and if they also provided "at least a 25-percent match for the federal formula grant" and played "a more active role in holding colleges accountable for their performance and costs." If a state opted out, it would get no federal higher-ed money.

The states, in turn, would funnel money to colleges — public, private, and for-profit — but the institutions would all be required "to enroll a substantial share of low-income students," meet students’ financial needs by keeping their costs at or below their estimated family contribution, and also meet "accountability performance measures."

So far, so good. But there’s a catch — a $38.6-billion catch. That’s how much more it would cost on top of what the federal government spends now, according to New America’s estimate. Price tag notwithstanding, the plan "is straightforward, actionable, and would ultimately restore American higher education’s promise of upward mobility for all," says Kevin Carey, New America’s education-policy director.

Meanwhile, the Education Department and interested Washington insiders are negotiating new loan-forgiveness regulations in a process — a geekfest, really — known as "neg reg." At issue, among other things, is a new federal standard for deciding which borrowers can ask to have their loans forgiven because they were defrauded by colleges.

Concealed Carry

Rich Legg
Gregory L. Fenves, president of the University of Texas at Austin, last week accepted a committee’s recommendations for allowing people with concealed-carry permits to bring guns onto the university campus. The new policies, required last year by the state Legislature, presented him with "the greatest challenge of my presidency to date," Mr. Fenves said.

While openly carrying guns will still be prohibited, people who have the appropriate permits will be able to bring their weapons into academic buildings — even into classrooms — and university-owned apartments, although in residence halls guns will be allowed only in common areas. Under the policies, guns must be in holsters that cover the trigger and the trigger guard, and must be kept entirely hidden and well within reach, or locked in a gun safe or car. State law continues to prohibit guns at sporting events (except, of course, those involving guns). The new rules will also ban guns from disciplinary hearings for students, faculty members, and staff members, from labs and other areas "where the discharge of a firearm might cause great harm," from buildings and areas used by programs for minors, and from animal-care and -research facilities.

No Change for ‘Fisher’

Speaking of Texas, the unexpected death of the Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia has upset the court’s conservative/liberal balance and upended expectations for a number of cases the court heard last fall — but not for the one of most interest to colleges, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.

That’s because Justice Elena Kagan, who worked on the long-running lawsuit while she was the Obama administration’s solicitor general, has recused herself from the case. As you surely recall, it’s a challenge the university’s race-conscious admissions practices. (Read more here.)

Yet Another Video

Just when you hoped things might be settling down at the University of Missouri at Columbia, another video has surfaced of the assistant professor of communications who was suspended after being caught on camera shouting for "some muscle" to keep reporters away from black protesters on a campus quadrangle last fall. This time, however, it’s police body-cam footage, and the professor, Melissa A. Click, is seen yelling at and scuffling with officers trying to clear a campus road for a car carrying Timothy M. Wolfe, who was then the university system’s president.

The appearance of the second video is an unfortunate twist for Ms. Click, whose supporters have maintained that the first video represented uncharacteristic behavior by her. The university’s interim chancellor, Henry C. (Hank) Foley, released a statement calling her conduct "appalling," and adding: "I am not only disappointed, I am angry, that a member of our faculty acted this way."

And So Much More …

A federal judge in Indianapolis threw out a lawsuit in which players at more than 100 Division I institutions sought to be paid at least the minimum wage. The judge said Congress never intended the Fair Labor Standards Act to apply to college athletes. … The Marvell Technology Group and Marvell Semiconductor Inc. will end a long-running patent dispute by paying Carnegie Mellon University $750 million.Lake Superior State University said it would eliminate most 8 a.m. classes in favor of a "common hour" in which students can meet with faculty members or one another — or, of course, sleep in.

Stalemate

A lot has been written lately about Simon P. Newman, the president of Mount St. Mary’s University, who became Internet-famous for his drown-the-cuddly-bunnies comment — and who, last week, disregarded the faculty’s 87-to-3 vote asking that he resign after he summarily fired two professors. But let’s not lose sight of what started the commotion.

A January article in the student newspaper, The Mountain Echo, revealed Mr. Newman’s covert plan to use an orientation-week survey to identify freshmen who could be at risk of dropping out at some point during the year ahead. The idea was not to provide them with extra help so they’d stay in class, but to get rid of them as expeditiously as possible: If they were gone before the date at which the Roman Catholic university had to report its fall enrollment, they wouldn’t figure in the year’s retention calculations.

"My short-term goal is to have 20-25 people leave by the 25th," Mr. Newman wrote last August in an email to David B. Rehm, who was then provost and who was raising questions about the survey. "This one thing will boost our retention 4-5%." (Mr. Newman recently hired a new provost and sent Mr. Rehm back to the Maryland university’s faculty, where he is a professor of philosophy.)

But those "20-25 people"? The students the president dismissed as "cuddly" when a faculty member asked about his plan? They were freshmen the college had sought out and offered admission to. Freshmen who had enrolled in good faith after being assured that, "at the Mount, you are not just another number, you are unique, and we are here to help you find the path that is right for you."

Mr. Newman subsequently argued that he was just trying to save the students money. "It’s immoral to have them take on debt doing something they don’t want to do," he said. But the Echo’s reporting turned up no evidence of Mr. Newman’s having made that argument when he was trying to put his retention-numbers strategy into effect.

Last week, after Mr. Newman rehired the two professors he had fired and the student government said three-quarters of students backed him, the university’s Board of Trustees announced that it would conduct a new, two-week review of recent events. The board has so far steadfastly supported Mr. Newman, a former private-equity-fund director who has been president less than a year. But in last week’s announcement, board members also apologized for "a breakdown in compassionate communication" — language that some hoped might hint at a peaceful resolution of the hostilities. (Read more here.)

Lawrence Biemiller writes about a variety of usual and unusual higher-education topics. Reach him at lawrence.biemiller@chronicle.com.