Higher Education Quick Takes

Quick Takes

April 4, 2023

Fayneese Miller announced Monday that she will retire from Hamline University on June 30, 2024.

The announcement notes Miller’s many accomplishments during the last eight years.

It didn’t mention the recent controversy at Hamline over the university’s response to an instructor showing an image of the prophet Muhammad in a class on global art history. When some Muslim students complained, Miller issued a statement that said in part, “It is not our intent to place blame; rather, it is our intent to note that in the classroom incident—where an image forbidden for Muslims to look upon was projected on a screen and left for many minutes—respect for the observant Muslim students in that classroom should have superseded academic freedom.” The instructor’s contract was not renewed.

In January, Hamline’s full-time faculty members voted 71 to 12 to call for Miller’s resignation.

In a press briefing, Miller said Hamline has never violated anyone’s academic freedom and that most of the press coverage about the recent controversy was a “false narrative.”

April 4, 2023

Virginia Commonwealth University’s president, Michael Rao, on Saturday criticized the disruption of a speech at VCU last week by antiabortion activists.

“As our nation’s Constitution protects the free speech of all, regardless of whether we agree or disagree with what is being said, it is essential that everyone treat everyone else with respect and civility,” Rao said.

VCU police charged two protesters. “One protester was charged with simple assault and the other with disorderly conduct. Neither individual was a VCU student nor had any connection to the university,” Rao said.

According to The Richmond Times-Dispatch, the first 30 minutes of the speech by Kristan Hawkins, an antiabortion activist, were disrupted by yelling. Then the police arrived, fighting broke out and the event was shut down.

Virginia House Speaker Todd Gilbert, a Republican, called the incident “another sad episode of free speech being shouted down on college campuses across our nation.”

April 4, 2023

After stepping down as president of Prairie View A&M University in February, Ruth Simmons has registered sharp criticism at the Texas A&M University system, telling The Houston Chronicle she questions the ability of system leaders to support the historically Black university.

“I don’t believe that the Board of Regents of the system is at all capable of managing the affairs of Prairie View,” Simmons told the newspaper, adding that regents “have no interest in learning” about the lone HBCU in the 11-university system, which Prairie View A&M joined in 1973.

Simmons—who led Prairie View A&M for six years after prior presidential stints at Smith College and Brown University—resigned her role in February, four months before she was scheduled to step down, because system leaders limited her authority to hire senior staff members. System officials said at the time that Texas A&M policies prevent outgoing presidents from making top executive appointments.

Officials have pushed back on the comments made by Simmons.

“Truth is, the first time President Simmons was told ‘no’ over almost six years, she quit and abandoned Prairie View A&M’s students, faculty and staff,” a spokesperson told The Houston Chronicle. “Despite her public criticism of The Texas A&M University System, Chancellor [John] Sharp allowed her to speak at commencement after her resignation and authorized her signature to be attached to December’s diplomas. We wish her well in her new endeavors.”

Since departing Prairie View A&M, Simmons has been named a president’s distinguished fellow at Rice University and a senior adviser to the president of Harvard University on engagement with HBCUs. Additionally, Brown University recently added her name to its Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice in honor of her push to explore the university’s historical ties to slavery.

April 4, 2023

The Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights has resolved its investigation into how the University of Vermont responded to complaints from students who said they faced antisemitic harassment at the institution.

Department investigators identified several areas of concern, including failure to investigate the allegations and that the failure to do so “may have allowed a hostile environment for some Jewish students to persist at the university.” Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects students from discrimination based on race, color or national origin.

Students who complained to OCR said they faced online harassment from a teaching assistant who talked about wanting to lower Zionist students’ grades and that a campus group excluded Zionists from participating. The complaint also included allegations that the campus Hillel building was vandalized.

Jewish college students have reported an increase in campus antisemitism in recent years, and the Vermont case is the first of several open investigations involving complaints of antisemitism to be resolved.

“It does not appear that the university determined whether the cumulative effects of these incidents created a hostile environment based on students’ shared ancestry (Jewish) or took action regarding the cumulative effects of the incidents until after the commencement of OCR’s investigation of this matter,” department officials wrote in a letter to the university.

The office also was concerned that the university president’s initial response to the office opening an investigation “may have perpetuated a hostile environment” and discouraged students who filed the federal complaint from speaking with the agency about their experiences.

As part of the resolution agreement with the department, released Monday, the university agreed to review and revise its policies to ensure that the university’s response is consistent with federal law, provide training to staff, and educate students and staff about Title VI’s prohibition of harassment. The university also agreed to issue a statement committing to address discrimination based on shared ancestry, including antisemitism.

“I am grateful for the University of Vermont’s commitment to address antisemitic harassment that violates federal civil rights law,” Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine E. Lhamon said in a news release. “Everyone has a right to learn in an environment free from antisemitic harassment. We will be watching to be sure these students are safe.”

April 4, 2023

Today on the Academic Minute: Dawn Brancati, senior lecturer in the political science department at Yale University, examines one unintended benefit of the COVID lockdowns. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

April 3, 2023

The North Dakota Senate on Friday narrowly rejected the bill that would’ve let the presidents of two state institutions review and then fire tenured faculty members—without review from, or the right to appeal to, a faculty committee.

The Senate vote was 21 for and 23 against, with three senators absent. That body has only four Democrats, who all voted against the legislation, House Bill 1446.

The state’s House of Representatives had passed the bill 66 to 27 on Feb. 20.

Mike Lefor, who leads the Republican House supermajority, filed the legislation. It would’ve affected Dickinson State University and Bismarck State College.

Dickinson State president Steve Easton supported it. But The Bismarck Tribune reported that the State Board of Higher Education and other groups opposed it.

Under the bill, the Dickinson and Bismarck presidents would’ve been able to conduct these faculty reviews at any time. Lefor’s original version would have provided no appeal for these fired faculty members, but the modified version the full House passed said they “may appeal the review to the commissioner of the State Board of Higher Education.”

The bill would’ve added new requirements that faculty members would have been expected to meet under the reviews—including, among other things, a requirement to “Effectively teach and advise a number of students approximately equal to the average campus faculty teaching and advising load.”

April 3, 2023

Bob Jones University president Steve Pettit announced his resignation Thursday, The Greenville News reported. He will leave office at the end of the academic year in May.

His resignation came only a few months after the board re-elected him.

The Greenville News said it “was able to confirm the authenticity of a leaked March 21 letter Pettit sent to the Board of Trustees, explaining his issues with Board Chairman John Lewis. In the letter, Pettit said Lewis allegedly kept information away from Pettit and obstructed a Title IX investigation, which led to a breakdown in communications between the two.”

A petition signed by 5,700 people calls for Pettit’s reinstatement and for Lewis to resign.

April 3, 2023

In a shocking development, Amherst and Williams Colleges announced on April 1 that they would merge.

In a joint announcement on the colleges’ Instagram pages, Amherst president Michael A. Elliott and Williams president Maud S. Mandel said, “Neither of us came to our respective roles imagining such a move. Over time, as we worked together, we recognized how deeply our schools were in sync: our missions, priorities and educational philosophies had so much in common. Our school colors even used the same purple. Of course, there are also real differences, and we’ve long been rivals in varsity athletics. But given that Amherst was founded two hundred years ago by a group of faculty and students from Williams, in many ways this feels less like a merger and more like a family reunion.”

The announcement added, “While the merger officially begins tomorrow [April 2], the list of details yet to be resolved is staggering—starting with the new institution’s name. A joint naming task force has reached the short-list phase, with leading possibilities including Amilliams, Willherst (consistent with current practice, the ‘h’ would be silent), and current fan favorite Wamherst. Whatever the choice, the presidents are reassuring their communities that each campus will maintain its unique identity within the larger ‘brand family.’”

For all our readers, please note the date of the announcement.

And in related branding news, see this video from University of Virginia president Jim Ryan on how to refer to the university.

Florida International University meanwhile announced, also on April 1, that “to maintain a safe threshold of caffeine intake, all coffee on FIU campuses will undergo a chemical-free decaffeination process. Decaffeinated drink options will also replace caffeinated ones in vending machines, shops and cafes, including Recharge U.”

“FIU is the fastest-rising in U.S. public university rankings, having jumped 62 spots in the past 10 years and among the Top 15 most innovative public universities,” said Anthony Rionda, associate vice president of strategic communications, government and external affairs. “Some are saying we are unstoppable, and keeping our progress slow and steady is important. Leadership is taking this dramatic step in hopes that we will be able to slow our meteoric ascent in research and student success.”

April 3, 2023

Three of the five members of North Idaho College’s Board of Trustees were no-shows for a special meeting called Thursday to discuss ongoing litigation against college President Nick Swayne, whom the governing board placed on leave last year, only to have him reinstated by the courts.

With only two members of the elected board present, the meeting did not take place due to the lack of a quorum, The Coeur d’Alene Press reported. Tarie Zimmerman and Brad Corkill told the newspaper that they had called the meeting to discuss the litigation strategy as the board majority continues its effort to oust Swayne. Zimmerman and Corkill have sparred with other members over attempts to remove Swayne for reasons that the board has not fully divulged, referring largely to concerns about language in the president’s contract.

The three absent members—Greg McKenzie, Todd Banducci and Mike Waggoner—form a board majority that frequently votes together. The majority has driven decisions in recent months to push out Swayne and replace him with an interim at a higher salary and to hire a college attorney without a formal bid process, violating Idaho’s open meetings laws along the way. Governance issues have led to the loss of NIC’s insurance provider, a bond-ratings downgrade and prompted scrutiny from NIC’s accreditor, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.

Majority members continued their push to remove Swayne on Friday, asking a judge to overturn a decision earlier this month to reinstate the president. A decision will be rendered at a later time.

McKenzie, the board chair, did not respond to a request for comment from Inside Higher Ed.

April 3, 2023

The Faculty Senate of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville said last week that it opposes acquisition of the University of Phoenix by a nonprofit affiliated with the University of Arkansas system, The Arkansas Times reported.

Stephen E. Caldwell said, “As chair of our Faculty Senate, it is my duty to represent and express the concerns of that body on all matters effecting our campus. I cannot think of any other issue that has so universally bound our faculty into a singular voice, and I am proud to represent that voice.”

In a letter to the Board of Trustees of the system, the Faculty Senate said, “Though you acknowledge the ‘checkered past’ of the University of Phoenix, we feel you are too quick to dismiss those problems as being in the past. We feel the reputation of Phoenix’s history will linger for years to come, and our campus is at the most risk for association with it. The University of Phoenix has proven itself, through strikingly low graduation and retention rates, to be unsuccessful at helping students reach their educational goals, anathema to what we do here on the Hill.”

The letter added, “Phoenix’s well-documented history of dishonest and predatory practices with students resulting in poor educational experiences are the defining features of the University of Phoenix brand, in opposition to ours.”

System spokesman Nate Hinkel said “that the contemplated structure of this potential deal would use no public funds and that the University of Arkansas System is not acquiring University of Phoenix.” Hinkel said those facts have been “heavily reported” and “explained in great detail,” though he said parts of the letter were “misleading” in this regard. “It’s important to be clear about that so there isn’t any confusion,” he said.


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