A life-raft year for higher education

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For college-bound senior Allison Clifford and her parents, John and Barbara, their fast-paced college search slowed dramatically after Sept. 11 to a careful pondering of whether to attend far away or close to home. If it's up to her father, it may be someplace nearby.

For Elisabeth Colabraro, a junior theater major at Emerson College in Boston, marching for peace suddenly replaced all other issues as the centerpiece of her fledgling activism.

And for Andrew Bergstein, an instructor in marketing at Penn State's Smeal School of Business, it has been a time of putting aside business instruction at various points in his regular classes to discuss US relations with Afghanistan - or whatever is on students' minds. "It's important to be sensitive to students' needs right now," he says.

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Like the rest of America, higher education was shaken to its roots in September. Even so, the terrorist attacks slammed into a year that was already quite full of important developments and intriguing footnotes.

In many ways, 2001 now seems a sort of life-raft year for higher education. Torn steel and tears lash together a flotsam of events and issues - from affirmative action to skyrocketing tuition, from an Ivy League changing of the guard to a college historian's fibbing and the SATs slipping.

Revenge of the nerds?

The year began with yet another in a long line of breast-beating commissions denouncing the misplaced priorities of college sports and the scandalous failure to graduate more "student athletes."

Graduation rates are about 42 percent for Division I men's basketball and 48 percent for football. Among a spate of books on the subject this year and last, one pointed out that even small elite colleges are caught in the trap: giving athletes a leg up in admissions at the expense of maintaining academic quality.

But a few schools are adopting a New Year's resolution to do something about it.

Earlier this month, a core group of elite liberal arts colleges in the New England Small College Athletic Conference - Williams, Amherst, Bowdoin, and Middlebury among them - decided that grade-point averages really should beat touchdowns scored when weighing students for admission. About half the conference members agreed to cut by about 10 percent the number of "recruited" athletes admitted each year.

"There was a strong consensus around the table that we want to be true to our ideals," Tom Gerety, Amherst's president, told the Chronicle of Higher Education. "In order to uphold our ideals, we need to do good institutional research and share it with each other."

Will it make a dent in the $4 billion college-sports machine? Not much, perhaps. But it is a start, he and others say.

Affirmative action

Sports wasn't the only area where higher education's values were on display this year. The contentious debate over affirmative-action policies in admissions heated up as a long series of court battles began to culminate.

The US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati heard arguments this month in two lawsuits. Plaintiffs' attorneys argued that the University of Michigan and its law school illegally discriminated against two white women - selecting for admission less-well-qualified minorities instead. The university argued that the government has a legal "compelling interest" in maintaining diversity on campus - requiring such admissions preferences.

These cases will likely be the first tests for affirmative action in higher education to reach the US Supreme Court - probably next year - since the 1978 case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. After a decade of split decisions by federal courts, these cases could heavily influence minorities' access to selective schools.

Bricks vs. clicks

While lawyers knocked heads over affirmative action, deep-pocketed schools were themselves banging into the blunt reality of supply-and-demand economics. Competition is sharpening in the "bricks vs. clicks" showdown, which pits traditional universities against Web-based upstarts. There are, it seems, more Web-based courses available than there are people wanting to take them.

Some online-only upstarts went out of business this year, while others scaled way back. Harcourt Higher Education closed its virtual doors in August after less than a year in operation. That flop might seem to imply that "bricks" campuses, with better financial bases, could win in the long run. But not necessarily. New York University last month pulled the plug on NYUonline after spending $25 million on the for-profit service. The University of Maryland University College and Temple University did likewise.

Yet while these business models failed, distance learning overall grew. At the for-profit, mostly online University of Phoenix, for instance, online enrollments reportedly jumped from 16,000 last year to 29,000 this year.

Some, like Graham Spanier, president of Pennsylvania State University, think there's still a good future, but that a go-slow, nonprofit approach better suits the traditional university community. It's definitely not the "get rich quick scheme" some thought, he says.

Academic freedom

Even if online ventures are flopping, tried and true principles like free speech on campus march on - right? Maybe.

This year juxtaposed pro-war rallies with scores of teach-ins and peace protests at a level not seen on campuses since the Vietnam War three decades earlier.

Amid a rethinking of courses, there was intense debate over free speech and what students and professors can, can't, or maybe just shouldn't say.

At California State University at Chico, students jeered George Wright Jr., a professor who denounced US foreign policy during a campus vigil after the Sept. 11 attacks. He received hundreds of angry e-mails and was chastised by university officials.

At the University of Texas, Austin, journalism professor Robert Jensen critiqued US foreign policy in a newspaper article. Larry Faulkner, president of the university, said he was "disgusted" and called the professor a "fountain of undiluted foolishness," even as alumni and legislators called for him to be sacked.

"I think free speech has always been limited, even on a university campus," says Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York. "Higher education's response to Sept. 11 is going to be mixed. There's no agreement on what the answer is - no politically correct understanding."

Tuition jumps

Public colleges raised tuition this year at the highest rates since 1993, according to the College Board. Tuition rose 5.5 percent at the average four-year private college, and 7.7 percent at public four-year institutions. Analysts laid most of the blame at the feet of legislators who cut higher-education budgets.

It was the first time since 1996 that public institutions' hikes rose more than private ones. At the same time, loans have grown to 58 percent of student aid this year, from 41 percent in 1980.

"These are hard times again," said a gloomy Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board. "Anybody who is not serious about what this downturn means is headed for disaster."

Changing the ivy guard There was movement among higher education's elite as three Ivy League universities announced new presidents this year. Harvard's managers chose former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers as the newest president of the nation's oldest university. His focus, he said, would be improving undergraduate education. Financing that effort shouldn't be a problem given the school's reported $20 billion endowment.

Princeton brought to the helm its first woman - Shirley Tilghman, a renowned molecular biologist who had been on its faculty. And Lee Bollinger, the former University of Michigan president who spearheaded its legal drive to defend affirmative action, was named to become Columbia University's new chief.

In addition, Ruth Simmons, whose appointment to head Brown University was announced last year, took over the Providence, R.I., school this summer.

SATs slip

This was also the year that tested the test - as the SAT, the grand old man of standardized admission tests - seemed to lose ground. Several small, mostly elite colleges said they would stop using the test. A handful of other schools have long opted not to require the SAT.

But the 800-pound guerrilla made its sentiments known this fall. The Board of Regents of the University of California - with dozens of campuses and hundreds of thousands of students - gave preliminary approval last month for an overhaul of its admissions process. It greatly devalued the SAT in that state by broadening the criteria used to evaluate applicants. The SAT II, a subject-specific test, was touted as one alternative for admissions officers to use.

Telling the truth

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joe Ellis, a historian at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., got caught lying to students. The Boston Globe reported, and Professor Ellis later confirmed, that he was not a Vietnam War veteran and had not been at the critical battles he claimed in class to have witnessed.

It raised an important ethical debate over how severe the offense was and how tough the punishment should be. Initially, the school defended Ellis. His historical research, focusing on Thomas Jefferson, remains unchallenged. But later, after he admitted the falsehood and apologized, he was suspended for a year.

"That he lied about going to Vietnam isn't important," Robin Kelley, a history professor at NYU told the Chronicle of Higher Education. "What is important is that Joe Ellis felt the need to misrepresent patriotism, to make himself into a metaphorical descendent of Jefferson."

E-mail claytonm@csps.com.

What new presidents are saying ...

"Part of our task will be to assure that all who graduate from this place are equipped to comprehend, to master, to work with the scientific developments that are transforming the world in which we will all work and live.... Discoveries are no longer confined by traditional academic boundaries. Many students no longer crave careers confined to a single profession or field. "

- Lawrence Summers, the new president of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

"The protection of speech that is offensive or insulting to us is one of the most difficult, difficult things that we do. While confidence may be found in silence, truth cannot dwell there."

- From the convocation speech by Ruth Simmons, president of Brown University in Providence, R.I. The first African-American to lead an Ivy League institution, she was inaugurated (left) in October.

"I believe the best undergraduate education will be a fundamentally different kind of experience just a few years from now: Still personal, still face to face, but strengthened and transformed by a vast array of cybernetic windows into the intellectual and the actual world, and involved at every turn with a sophisticated understanding of the global perspective."

- Donald Eastman, who in July became president of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Compiled from news wires

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