Posts tagged with Ku

A counter-proposal for higher education

Last fall, President Barack Obama proposed an ambitious set of reforms to make colleges more affordable and accountable for outcomes.

The president's plan, which included a system to rank schools according to measures of value and a proposal to distribute federal student aid based on the rankings, found a mixed response in higher education circles.

At the time of the president's proposal, university officials and education experts around the country voiced fears about possible unintended consequences. Some said ranking schools based on graduation rates, for example, might encourage schools to lower academic standards. Kansas University Provost Jeffrey Vitter echoed that concern in a September interview.

Other outcomes, such as the incomes of college graduates, critics have said, could punish programs and schools that provide education of social value but which doesn't always lead to high-paying jobs. (A December story in the Journal-World explored this topic.)

In a letter last week sent from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities to the U.S. Secretary of Education, the APLU said it supported the president's overall goals of making college as affordable and effective as possible but stated the president's plan could "create perverse incentives."

So the APLU, which KU belongs to, and whose executive committee KU Chancellor Gray-Little sits on, offered its own counter-proposal to the president's.

The APLU's plan calls for providing students and families with more data on college, but nixes the ranking system. Rather than tying the information to the federal aid system, it calls for more stringent Title IX eligibility (a requirement for schools receiving federal funds) that would include "a limited set of meaningful outcomes," adjusted by a student readiness index.

Those outcomes would include student progress and completion rates, as the president suggested, but offered alternative measures. The APLU also listed student loan default rates, net tuition (rather than sticker price) and graduate employment and graduate program enrollment rates (rather than income) as measurable college outcomes.

In much of this, the APLU offered ideas similar to what the White House proposed but with tweaks that could help account for differences among institutions and students. Which of course makes it a similarly ambitious proposition.

One thing both plans call for, and many around the country are calling for, is more transparency in higher education when it comes to comparing costs and programs. Transparency turns out to be not so simple a thing when you are talking about thousands of massive, complex, multi-million dollar institutions.

But maybe you have your own grand plan for reforming the country's higher education system. We're all ears at Heard on the Hill. Send them this way, along with your KU news tips, to


Sorting out the legal issues of the regents’ social media policy

Last week the Kansas Board of Regents announced the names of a work group created to review the social media policy that the board approved last month. The policy, for those returning to campus from holiday hibernation, allows presidents of Kansas public universities to discipline, up to firing, employees for social media posts that conflict with the best interests of the university or its ability to provide services.

That the regents agreed to review the policy has done little to quiet those who have vocally opposed it. With the work group set to report back to the regents in April, that leaves at least four months, and quite possibly more, for it to sit in the regents' policy book in its original wording.

Distinguished professors from Kansas State University and Kansas University have asked the regents to suspend the policy while under review. Last week the faculty senate presidents of regents universities also asked the regents to suspend the policy.

The regents refused. Regents chairman Fred Logan explained their position, saying they had passed the new rules on social media use "in good faith."

Not everyone agrees. Philip Nel, a K-State distinguished professor of English, and a vocal critic of the policy who has helped organize multiple faculty responses to it, wrote in a recent blog post that he originally thought the policy "must have been a mistake." He writes:

Unlike previous Boards, this one had — for instance — been asking the Kansas Legislature to fund the state universities in Kansas. Adopting a social media policy that suspended freedom of speech and (in effect) eradicated tenure was surely because the hastily passed proposal was ill-considered.

His thinking has changed, though.

Before voting on its new social media policy, the Kansas Board of Regents ran it by the Kansas attorney general's office to make sure it stood on solid legal and constitutional ground. Confident in its constitutionality, the regents passed the policy unanimously in December.

The fact that the regents took the policy to the attorney general Nel takes as evidence that the policy was not a blunder or hastily crafted and little-thought-upon blip:

The policy is not a mistake, but a carefully executed plan to muzzle free speech. This is why the Board passed the policy as faculty and staff were grading exams and preparing to leave town (indeed, many had already left town). This is why, though the policy has been panned with near unanimity from both within and beyond Kansas, the Board is not backing down.

Logan said last week that he believed that the policy is a re-statement of existing law. But whether the policy could survive a legal challenge in court is an open question.

The constitutional issues involved are fairly nuanced and complicated. Although I suppose if these things were simple and straightforward, we wouldn't need courts or lawyers. In a conversation earlier this month with Rick Levy, a distinguished professor of law at KU, pointed to parts of the policy that could potentially be challenged on legal and constitutional grounds.

Levy, who is always careful when talking about the policy to point out that he is not expressing any opinion one way or the other, said, "Normally the state cannot discriminate or take action against speakers based on the contents of their speech." That's a core First Amendment protection. But there are some exceptions to it. One being speech that is, as Levy explains, "directed toward inciting imminent unlawful" behavior.

That provision to free speech comes with standards. Such speech must be likely to provoke unlawful conduct, and the speaker must have intended for the speech to incite unlawful behavior, Levy said. (Without those standards you'd get a lot of perverse legal and social outcomes. Imagine J.D. Salinger being on the hook for Mark David Chapman's murder of John Lennon because of Catcher in the Rye.)

The regents seemed to address speech inciting illegal behavior in their social media policy. Included in the types of improper social media are any posts that "directly incites violence or other immediate breach of the peace." But Levy said this "doesn't match the standard directly. It may be broader or permit action under broader grounds" because it "does not clearly require intent or likeliness" in its wording.

Another potential issue relates to the "void for vagueness" doctrine in constitutional due process. Under the doctrine people are "entitled to fair notice of whether your conduct is valid or not," Levy says.

The regents policy allows university heads to punish employees for any social media post that "impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers, has a detrimental impact on close working relationships for which personal loyalty and confidence are necessary, impedes the performance of the speaker's official duties, interferes with the regular operation of the university, or otherwise adversely affects the university's ability to efficiently provide services."

Under a constitutional challenge to the policy, the regents would have to prove this gives university personnel adequate information about what kinds of speech would cause them to be disciplined or fired, Levy said.

Finally, there's the question of whether faculty and employees at a university are subject to the same legal precedents under free speech law as other public employees. The regents policy appears to apply principles that came out of the Gracetti v. Ceballos Supreme Court decision, in which the court decided that when employees make statements "pursuant to their official duties" (very similar language can be found in the regents policy), they are not engaged in civic speech protected by the First Amendment.

Levy said that, because of language in the court opinion, lower courts have typically ruled that those principles don't apply to universities, where teaching and scholarship have a unique function among other government activities.

Head spinning yet? All this of course could be sorted out by regents once the work group reports back. If not, there's a chance it could go to court to be sorted out.

If you have your own legal opinions on the matter or, better yet, KU news tips, send them along to


The long and tangled journey of post-tenure review at KU

It took two proposals, four handouts (printed on four different colors of paper) and nearly two hours for the Kansas University Faculty Senate to approve a post tenure policy yesterday.

But of course it took far more than that. The process of crafting a policy that would allow academic departments at KU to evaluate the long-term research and performance of tenured professors began earlier this year and took, by my own rough and vague estimate, thousands of man hours.

It has been a long, fraught process full of negotiations — within the committee that drafted the proposal, between the committee and faculty during townhall meetings, among Faculty Senate members, and between the Faculty Senate and the provost's office.

After yesterday's meeting, Rick Levy, a KU law professor and co-chair of the post-tenure review draft committee, said he felt "gratified" that the committee's policy won the approval of the Senate. Yet he pointed out that the draft didn't necessarily contain his own vision of what post-tenure review should be. "Ultimately I was only a proposer," he said.

The committee's policy faced a direct challenge in the form of an amended version submitted by Gerald Mikkelson, a KU professor of Russian and Eastern European studies. The actual process of post-tenure review, as a seven-year evaluation of a professor's work by a small committee of peers, was essentially the same in both drafts. But Mikkelson's draft nixed approval of the review's outcome by school deans and the provost. Essentially, Mikkelson's alternate proposal maximized the control faculty had over the post-tenure review process. Mikkelson's proposal was ultimately defeated in favor of the committee's draft.

Throughout the months-long discussion and debate over post-tenure review, many faculty members have expressed worry that tenure itself could become eroded through the review process. The committee tried to address those concerns in their revised policy draft, released in October for public consumption, by deleting most references to disciplinary consequences that could follow from post-tenure review.

Also at stake is the power faculty have through the governance process. One of the bigger issues throughout the talks has been about the destination of the policy — i.e., whether it will reside in the Faculty Senate's rule books or the provost's. Ultimately the question boils down to how much control and oversight faculty members are given over future changes to the policy.

The Senate essentially lost that battle, at least on the original front it was fought. Earlier this fall the Senate voted unanimously on a resolution that essentially said to the provost's office, "Hey, we want the policy with us." Mikkelson's draft stated outright that the post-tenure review policy would reside with the Faculty Senate. KU Provost Jeffrey Vitter's position was that the policy belonged in his office's policy library because it was a personnel matter, along with annual evaluations.

However Vitter's office did offer a compromise, negotiated with the Faculty Senate's executive committee, that would in effect give the Senate the power to approve any future changes to post-tenure review and the annual evaluation policy — something the Senate didn't have before. That compromise passed last night.

Listening to all this debate over how much power the provost should have over post-tenure review was Vitter himself. When the meeting was over, I asked him if he took any of it personally. "If I did that, I wouldn't be able to survive," he said. Not that any faculty members voiced suspicions and distrust of Vitter as a person. Rather, the debate centered around the power of his office relative to their own.

Vitter said that he, too, thinks there is room for a stronger role at the university for the Faculty Senate. The amendments passed last night give faculty governance "new power," something Vitter thought was important, he said. As a whole, he voiced pleasure over the policy-creation process — tangled as it's been at times.

"It illustrates the positive things that can happen when people work together for the common good," he said.


Student debt on the rise

In Kansas and across the country student debt is on the rise, though the debt burdens of Kansas students are, as you might expect, smaller.

A new report from the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit focused on college affordability, shows more than 70 percent of college seniors who graduated in 2012 left school with student loan debt.

That's a lot of indebted graduates. More troubling is that the average debt among them has grown. For 2012 the average debt load was $29,400. That number has been on the rise for several years, ticking up about 6 percent per year on average.

Kansas students are in a bit better shape. In 2012 the average debt taken out by KU students was $23,468, almost $6,000 less than the national average reported by College Access and Success, though that number has also risen from 2008's average of $20,902. For all students graduating from a public university in Kansas, the average debt load is $23,000, according to figures from the Kansas Board of Regents.

While those figures are far better than the national average, and while acknowledging that an average masks very different experiences across students, even Kansas' lower student debt figures could be a problem, especially for lower income students.

In a recent conversation with William Elliot, a KU associate professor of social welfare and the founding director Assets and Education Initiative, Elliott said that student debt burdens even below $20,000 can affect the long-term financial prospects of lower income students. Moreover, the prospect of debt can discourage loan-averse students from enrolling in 4-year programs or from going to college altogether.

To address the problem Elliott and others have advocated for encouraging college savings accounts and even restructuring federal financial aid to more of a savings model. Others are looking sharply at debt and graduate income levels to measure the value of a college education. And still others are just generally freaked out about the $1 trillion in outstanding student debt U.S. adults are trying to pay off.

And I'm proud, sad and frightened to say I'm among them. That's why I need your KU news tips to keep the show going. Send them along to

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Humanities crises therapy

Once again the humanities are on our minds here at Heard on the Hill.

First, a mea culpa: A few weeks ago in a Journal-World article about the role of the humanities and liberal arts at Kansas University, we referenced a decrease of 210 undergraduate students enrolled in Kansas University’s theatre program from 2007 to 2012. As folks from the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences explained to me, the number did not accurately reflect the change in theatre students during the time period. The decrease from 2007 to 2012 reflected a reclassification of majors with the creation KU School of Art within arts and sciences. Where theatre and film majors had previously been counted together in the theatre department, they were now counted separately, shifting a large numbers of students away theatre to film on paper — but that didn't reflect actual interest in the major. Between 2009, when the School of Art was created, and 2012, undergraduate enrollment in theatre actually increased from 73 to 85. Our apologies for any confusion that caused.

The academic future of arts and humanities is an ongoing topic of conversation not just on the hill but across the country. But a New York Times op-ed article by Gary Gutting, a University of Notre Dame philosophy professor, argues that the crisis extends well beyond the college world. The inability of those interested in creating art or doing humanistic study to find an outlet in the economy is a national economic, cultural — perhaps even a moral — crisis in the country, Gutting writes. Making a living from writing, painting or playing music is all but impossible except for the extraordinarily good and very lucky elite.

If humanities doom and gloom in the media has gotten you down, though, Michael Gibbs Hill, a blogger with the Chronicle of Higher Education, has devised a "Humanities Crisis Mad Lib" to shine a bit of light on all the handwringing over humanities among journalists such as myself. Gibbs also happens to offer a resounding and nuanced defense of the humanities and their role in education.

But there are other crises in [adjective] need of a Mad Lib. You can [strong action verb] yours in to I'll happily take your KU news tips, too.


A moody outlook for higher education industry

Higher education is education, but it's also an industry in this country. As evidence of that I would point to the fact that Moody's Investor's Service issues market outlooks for higher education. (Perhaps you remember Moody's from the run-up to the financial crisis, when it and other investment ratings agencies gave high seals of approval to the toxic mortgage-backed securities that blew up the economy.)

And Moody's view on the higher education industry the last couple years has been "mostly bleak," writes Scott Carlson from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The service's most recent outlook for higher ed., issued this week, was negative once again. Moody's cited a weak economy, which hurts families' ability to pay for college, and political fights over the federal budget, which could decrease the student aid available.

The sluggish economy led to rising loan default rates, high unemployment and stagnant family income — all of which can hurt the revenues of schools. More expenses are coming up as well, after years of colleges and universities having avoided investments in human capital (i.e., raises and new hires) and infrastructure.

At Kansas University, total student enrollment is down for the fifth straight year, though the school had a 6.1 percent larger freshman class compared with last year. Along with federal battles over revenue, the university has also faced sharp cuts from the Kansas state government. With a $34.3 million decrease of funding for state schools over two years, Kansas is one of the few states in the U.S. to make outright cuts to higher education funding.

All these factors would seem to suggest that KU could keep struggling for a couple of years yet to regain previous enrollment levels, especially if tuition rates rise in response to state cuts. Lower levels will make it all the more difficult for the university to make capital investments.

See how easy that was? Maybe I should start my own investor outlook service. To subscribe to my outlooks, for a Moody's-esque price, or to send KU news tips, email me at


Post-tenure review 2.0

Some weeks ago we checked in on the ongoing construction of Kansas University's post-tenure review policy. After open forums around campus for faculty to weigh in, plus lengthy discussions in the Faculty Senate, the committee tasked with writing a policy has produced a new draft for faculty members and their representatives in the Senate to mull over.

This policy is considerably shorter — a direct response to concerns that the early draft was long, complicated and potentially onerous for the academic departments adopting it. The new version is about three pages long (single spaced), about a page shorter than the previous draft. For those who like the revised policy, Faculty Senate and draft committee co-chair Chris Crandall said thanks go to his fellow draft committee member Rick Levy for the word-smithing.

In addition to being shorter, the revamped policy nixes language about disciplinary actions, including dismissal, for faculty members who fail to satisfy an academic department's criteria. That is also a response to faculty concerns that the previous policy was unnecessarily punitive.

The new draft sticks mostly to language that is positive, describing the post-tenure review policy as encouraging "professional vitality through collaborative discourse concerning the faculty member's role" in his or her department, school and field. And the draft cuts out a reference from the last draft that reads "In some cases, post-tenure review may indicate the need for corrective action if the faculty member has failed to satisfy the (academic) unit's state criteria."

For those who took exception to references of "corrective action," they pointed to the original Kansas Board of Regents mandate calling for post-tenure review, which made no mention of punitive measures, stating rather that the review process was an opportunity for "identifying opportunities that will enable them to reach their full potential for contribution to the university."

The KU History Department, for example, published a statement that argued because the Regents made no mention of dismissal in its post-tenure review mandate, "the PTR policy should not introduce such measures."

Mike Williams, KU associate professor of journalism, said the draft committee "did a really pretty decent job to address some of the concerns of faculty." Williams is aware of the anxieties post-tenure review talk can kick up among faculty. The mere mention of "post-tenure review" can often "sends chills down the spines" of professors, especially those who fear it amounts a second tenure process. "That's not what this is," Williams says. "It's not that kind of deal."

There is also much anxiety about the rollout and timing of the policy — the "who goes first" question, as Williams points out. Others have continued to express concerns not about the new policy draft itself, but where it resides.

The Faculty Senate has previously expressed to administration that it wanted the policy to reside in its own book of rules and regulations. As it is designed, the post tenure review policy is set to become part of the university-wide policy library, putting it under the direct purview of administration. Many faculty members have expressed concerns that this would allow future administrators to change the policy without faculty approval or even knowledge.

"We want it to be in the faculty code, because for it to be changed one iota it would have to be approved by Faculty Senate," said Gerald E. Mikkelson, a KU professor of Russian and Eastern European studies. "The provost is not yielding one inch on the matter of where that policy will reside."

KU Provost Jeff Vitter has said the policy library is the best home for the post-tenure review policy because it relates to the evaluation policy, another personnel matter.

The Faculty Senate still has to debate the new draft and vote on it before it comes before administrators for their approval. The policy is slated to go into effect in April 2014.

Until then I'll keep rocking the post-tenure review updates. If it were legal, and not a flagrant violation of journalistic and most other kinds of ethics, I'd start taking odds on the Senate's passage of the post-tenure review policy. Well, I won't be taking bets, but I will be taking your KU news tips. Send them on over to


Get your dose of Depression-era economics tonight on the hill

Tonight at 7 in the Spencer Art Museum, Alexander Field, a professor of economics at Santa Clara University in California, will give a talk on the Great Depression and economic growth.

Field is the author of "A Great Leap Forward," a book that makes the case that technological progress during the 1930s helped pave the way for the post-World War II economic boom times. In an interview with New York Times blogger David Leonhardt, Field discusses how 1930s-era innovations in aviation, automobiles (including the electric transmission and power steering) communications (TV would be the big one there) and other fields helped the country succeed militarily in World War II and made later productivity leaps possible in the U.S. economy.

Field is coming as part of the Phi Beta Kappa's visiting scholar program. His talk is free and open to the public.

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The President of the Gaels returns to the hill

For Iona College President Joseph Nyre, Tuesday's men's basketball game between his school and the Kansas University Jayhawks was one part competition, one part homecoming. Nyre holds Ed.s (education specialist) and PhD degrees from the KU School of Education, and he met his wife at the university. Last night Nyre had to put aside his longtime affection for KU basketball to root for his Gaels.

"I've never rooted against them (the Jayhawks) until tonight," he said. (Unfortunately for Nyre, his rooting came to no end: His Gaels lost by 20.)

Much has changed since Nyre last visited the KU campus 10 years ago. A football practice field sits atop what used to be parking lots, and the Booth Family Hall of Athletics now greets Allen Fieldhouse guests at the eastern entrance.

Nyre's journey down memory lane Tuesday included visits with education school professors he knew from his time as a graduate student. He also chatted with local media in Lawrence, including KU Sports' Tom Keegan and yours truly. Only now do I realize I forgot to ask him the most pertinent question of all: Is the Iona Gael's cane for walking, for hitting or for fashion purposes? Alas, I might never know. But I must move on somehow...

Nyre grew up in Wisconsin and went to school just about everywhere. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse and went on to receive an M.A. in Educational and Counseling Psychology at the University of Missouri. At Mizzou, Nyre said, he learned more about KU's special education program. Crossing the border, he got his PhD in school psychology from KU and then he was off to Harvard for post-doc work.

Nyre became Iona president in 2011. With Iona just north of New York City, Nyre has been able to meet with Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little on her occasional ventures to the Big Apple for national higher education gatherings. Nyre heaped high praise on Gray-Little — "I think the world of her and the work she's doing" — and said he was also excited to "share" New York's Iona with Kansas and the Midwest.

Whether Kansans were in the mood to have Iona shared with them is another question for another day. And it's one that does not matter to me, at least not until I find out what the Gael's cane is for. If you know, please share with me — along with any KU news tips you might have — at


KU events this week: Michael Dirda and the Post, Halloween concert, a cult classic filmed in Lawrence and more

Up on the hill Kansas University and company are dishing out ghoulish thrills and intellectual candy this week. If you have time between costume balls and Halloween parties, here's some stuff to do:

*Tonight night from 5:00-6:30 p.m. at the Big 12 room in the Kansas Union, Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Dirda will talk about his life at the Washington Post, the world of books and publishing, as well as literary journalism. Dirda is a book critic for the Post in addition to having penned a memoir and four collections of essays. He won the Pulitzer in 1993 for his literary criticism, plus a bunch of other prestigious awards. Seating is free but limited. (Note: I'm trying to start a rumor that he will present his talk in a Carl Bernstein costume. There's some candy corn in it if you can help spread the rumor. And there's a whole bag in it for Dirda himself if he actually comes dressed as Bernstein.)

*At noon Wednesday in the Ecumenical Christian Ministries building, Jeremy Farmer, CEO of Just Food, will speak about issues in the food system that have contributed to rises in obesity and malnourishment among the poor. Just Food is a nonprofit that aims to tackle food insecurity in Douglas County.

*On Wednesday visiting lecturer Robert Wuthnow, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, will look at the role religion has played in Kansas political activism from John Brown to Dwight Eisenhower. Wuthnow will speak at 4 p.m. in the Kansas Union's Woodruff Auditorium.

*If your Wednesday is still open after that, you can mosey on over to the Dole Institute of Politics on West Campus for PBS producer and director Mark Zwonitzer's talk on Richard Ben Cramer, who wrote a tome on Bob Dole. You can hear Zwonitzer talking about Cramer writing about Dole at 7:30 p.m.

*But perhaps you'd rather attend something spookier, and more tuneful. At the same time as Zwonitzer's talk, the Lied Center will host the KU Symphony Orchestra's Halloween concert, which will feature bat- and ghoul-related selections. Kansas public radio's Mark Edwards will emcee. Show up earlier and you can take part in the community costume contest. Tickets are $8 for adults and $6 for children. If you can't make up your mind whether to attend, consider this: They'll be playing from Danny Elfman's score of the Michael Keaton Batman movie.

*On Friday the KU Film and Media Studies department will be showing Carnival of Souls, an indie cult classic directed by Herk Harvey and shot largely in Lawrence. The film, made on a budget a hair over $30,000, is about a woman who survives a car wreck only to find herself haunted by ghosts. Doors at 100 Old Father Studios, where much of the movie was filmed, open at 7 p.m. Seating will be limited and tickets cost $10 at the door. Proceeds will go to benefit the department.


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