A New Plan for Faculty Diversity … and Other Winter Wonders from the NEJHE Beat

By John O. Harney

Faculty diversity. In the early 1990s, NEBHE, the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) and the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) collaborated to develop the first Compact for Faculty Diversity. Formally launched in 1994, with support from the Ford Foundation and Pew Charitable Trust, the compact focused on five key strategies: motivating states and universities to increase financial support for minorities in doctoral programs; increasing institutional support packages to include multiyear fellowships, along with research and teaching assistantships to promote integration into academic departments and doctoral completion; incentivizing academic departments to create supportive environments for minority students through mentorship; sponsoring an annual institute to build support networks and promote teaching ability; and building collaborations for student recruitment to graduate study. With reduced foundation support, collaboration among the three participating regional education compacts declined, but some core compact activities continued through SREB.

Now, NEBHE and its sister regional compacts are launching a collaborative, nine-month planning process to reinvigorate and expand a national Compact for Faculty Diversity. Under the proposed new compact, NEBHE, the Midwestern Higher Education Compact (MHEC), SREB and WICHE would collaborate to invest in the achievement of diversity, equity and inclusion in faculty and staff at postsecondary institutions in all 50 states. Ansley Abraham, the founding director of the SREB State Doctoral Scholars Program at the SREB, has been instrumental in the design and execution of that initiative. He recently published this short piece in Inside Higher Ed.

Fighting COVID. As the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned of the roughest winter in U.S. public health history, Wheaton College has stood out. Our Wheaton in Norton, Mass. (not to be confused with the Wheaton in Illinois) developed a plan based on science that has kept positive cases low on campus and allowed in-person classes during the fall semester. Wheaton was able to limit the college’s overall fall semester case count to 23 (a .06 positivity rate among 35,000 tests) due to strong protocols, rigorous testing through the Cambridge, Mass.-based Broad Institute and a shared commitment from the community, especially students. In early November, as cases were spiking across the U.S., the private liberal arts college had its own spike of 13 positive cases in one day. But thanks to immediate contact tracing in partnership with the Massachusetts Community Tracing Collaborative, only one positive case resulted after that day, notes President Dennis Hanno. Part of Wheaton’s success owes to its twice-a-week testing throughout the semester. The college also credits its work with the for-profit In-House Physicians to complement internal staff in managing on-campus testing and quarantine/isolation housing.

New England in D.C. The COVID-19 crisis should make national health positions crucial. Earlier this week, President-elect Joe Biden tapped Dr. Rochelle Walensky, an infectious disease physician with Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, to lead the CDC and Dr. Vivek Murthy, who attended Harvard and Yale and did his residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, to be surgeon general. They’ll work with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical advisor and College of the Holy Cross graduate who has served six presidents.

Last month, as Biden’s transition team began drawing on the nation’s colleges and universities to prepare to take the reins of government, we flashed back to a 2009 NEJHE piece when Barack Obama was stocking his first administration. “As they form their White House brain trusts, new presidents tend to mine two places for talent: their home states and New England—especially New England’s universities, and especially Harvard,” we noted at the time. Most recently, two New England Congresswomen have scored big promotions on Capitol Hill. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) became Appropriations chair and Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) was elected assistant speaker of the House. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) was already chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee.

Indebted. U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), long a champion of canceling student debt, called on Biden to take executive action to cancel student loan debt. “All on his own, President-elect Biden will have the ability to administratively cancel billions of dollars in student loan debt using the authority that Congress has already given to the secretary of education,” she told a Senate Banking Committee hearing. “This is the single most effective economic stimulus that is available through executive action.” About 43 million Americans have a combined total of $1.5 trillion in federal student loan debt. Such debt has been shown to discourage big purchases, growth of new businesses and rates of home ownership among other life milestones. Warren has outlined a plan in which Biden can cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt for borrowers.

Jobless recovery? Everyone knew the public health crisis would be accompanied by an economic crisis. This week, Moody’s Investors Service projected that the 2021 outlook for the U.S. higher education sector remains negative, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to threaten enrollment and revenue streams. The sector’s operating revenue will decline by 5% to 10% over the next year, Moody’s projected. The pace of economic recovery remains uncertain, and some universities have issued or refinanced debt to bolster liquidity. (As this biting piece notes, “Just as decreased state funding has caused students to go into debt to cover tuition and fees, universities have taken on debt to keep their doors open.”)

The name of the game for many higher education institutions (HEIs) is coronavirus relief money from the federal government. NEBHE has written letters to Congress calling for increased relief based on the many New England students and families struggling with reduced incomes or job loss and the costs associated with resuming classes that were significantly higher than anticipated. These costs have been growing based on regular virus testing, contact tracing, health monitoring, quarantining, building reconfigurations, expanded health services, intensified cleaning and the ongoing transition to virtual learning. Citing data from the National Student Clearinghouse, NEBHE estimated that New England’s institutions in all sectors lost tuition and fee revenue of $413 million. And that’s counting only revenue from tuition and fees. Most institutions also face additional budget shortfalls due to lost auxiliary revenues (namely, from room and board) and the high costs of compliance with new health regulations and the administration of COVID-19 tests to students, faculty and staff. (When the relief money is spent and by whom is important too. Tom Brady’s sports performance company snagged a Paycheck Protection Program loan of $960,855 in April.) Anna Brown, an economist at Emsi, told our friends at the Boston Business Journal that higher ed staffers working in dorms, maintenance roles, housing and food services have been hit hard, and faculty will not be far behind

Admissions blast from the past. I’ve overheard too many conversations lately with reference to “testing” and wondered if the subject was COVID testing or interminable academic exams. Given admissions tests being de-emphasized by colleges, we were reminded me of a 10-year-old piece by Tufts officials on how novel admissions questions would move applicants to flaunt their creativity. The authors told of how “Admissions officers use Kaleidoscope, as well as the other traditional elements of the application, to rate each applicant on one or more of four scales: wise thinking, analytical thinking, practical thinking and creative thinking.” Could be their moment?

Anti-wokism. The U.S. Department of Education held “What is to be Done? Confronting a Culture of Censorship on Campus” on Dec. 8 (presumably not deliberately on the anniversary of John Lennon’s assassination). The hook was to unveil the department’s “Free Speech Hotline” to take complaints of campus violations. The event organizers contended that “Due to strong demand, the event capacity has been increased!” The department’s Assistant Secretary for Postsecondary Education Robert King began noting that we’ll hear from “victims of cancel culture’s pernicious compact” where generally “administrators cave to the mob and punish the culprit.” He noted, “Coming  just behind this are Communist-style re-education camps” and assured the audience that the department has launched several investigations into these kinds of offenses like those that land awkwardly in my inbox from Campus Reform. Universities are no place for “wokism,” one speaker warned, adding that calls for diversity and tolerance actually aim to squelch unpopular opinions.

Welcome dreamers. Last week, a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to restore the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to how it was before the administration announced plans to end it in September 2017. DACA provides protection against deportation and work authorization to certain undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. DACA participants include many current and former college students. NEBHE issued a statement in support of DACA in September 2017 and has advocated for the initiative’s support.

John O. Harney is executive editor of The New England Journal of Higher Education.


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