News from other Higher Education Institutions

News coming out of other Higher Education Campuses is very interesting to our work on diversity and inclusion. In this section, we look at the Varsity Blues scandal, surveys highlighting the status of race relations on U.S. campuses, and President Trump’s recent executive order in support of ‘free inquiry’.

Wealthy Parents Cheat Admission System in Operation Varsity Blues Scandal

In the midst of a debate over affirmative action, college admissions was rocked by the news that wealthy parents have ensured admission for their children through bribery and fraud. Now titled ‘Operation Varsity Blues’, this scandal is the largest college admissions case ever developed by the Department of Justice, spanning multiple universities and over 50 individuals. With help from scam architect Rick Singer, wealthy parents paid for people to take college admissions tests on behalf of their children, provide answers during exams, change answers after submitting exams, and offer applicants admission as athletes without any athletic background, among other methods now seen as the ‘side door’ into prestigious universities. Parents of disabled children expressed fear after learning that Singer’s methods included receiving accommodations for college entrance exams so that his students could cheat. Nadine Finnigan-Carr, whose son has autism, worried that, “It’s already hard enough to get that (accommodation) letter from professors … that stigma is just going to get worse.” And, while experts believe that these discoveries will likely not sway Supreme Court justices’ opinions on affirmative action, it does seem to weaken opponents’ argument that affirmative action ‘takes a spot from a deserving student’ – apparently having enough money is all you need.

Surveys of University Presidents and Faculty Members Show Two Different Pictures of Race Relations on Campuses

Inside Higher Ed released the results of their 2019 Survey of College and University Presidents this month with a surprising improvement in moods concerning race relations. This report shows that 81% of presidents view the current state of race relations on their campus as ‘Good’ or ‘Excellent’. However, when asked about race relations nationally, only a quarter of presidents saw the current status as positive. Author on race relations and President Emerita of Spelman College Beverly Daniel Tatum expressed her surprise to say: “I find myself imagining what the presidents of those colleges with racist images in their yearbooks would have said about race relations on their campuses during that time period? Are today’s presidents really tuned in to what is happening in residence halls and fraternity houses and on student social media in the Trump era?” The result becomes even more concerning as campuses have been experiencing an uptick in discriminatory acts, which are oftentimes seen by presidents as “one-time events” and not necessarily an indicator of on-campus feelings. This seems to notion a disconnect between presidents and their campus communities.

The above survey result also seems in contrast to feelings of faculty of color on college and university campuses, according to a report released by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA this month. This report, released every three years, analyzes survey responses from over 20,000 faculty members who teach undergraduates across the country, this year covering responses from 2016-2017. When asking about discrimination, non-Asian and non-white men reported higher rates of discrimination as a source of stress compared to white women. More than half of female professors of color considered discrimination a somewhat or extensive source of stress. 97% of Native American women and roughly 81% of black and latina women reported feeling a need to work harder than their colleagues to be perceived as a legitimate scholar. Kevin Eagen, director of the institute that released the results, noted that: “[a]ny progress institutions have made with respect to enhancing the diversity of their faculty through hiring will be short-lived if women and faculty of color endure discriminatory departmental and institutional climates that serve as a major source of stress and potentially erode their ability to achieve work-life balance.” The report even put some of this progress into question. Although some 56% of respondents said their institutions prioritized promoting racial and ethnic diversity within the faculty and administration, whites and Asians were more likely than their colleagues of different ethnicities to say this. When asked this same question, only 35% Native Americans and 43 % of black professors seemed to agree. With a seemingly large gap in perceptions between presidents and their faculty members, it becomes even more pertinent to have open conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion on higher education campuses.

Executive Order Vaguely Enforces “Free Inquiry” on Campuses

On March 21, President Trump signed an executive order designed to continue the debate about free speech on university campuses. Among language increasing the transparency of costs associated with higher education, the order stated that federal research grant funds would only be offered to those institutions that “promote free inquiry” on their campuses, as judged by federal agencies. Many experts immediately grew concerned over the vagueness of the order, stating that: “It all depends on how the federal government defines free speech”. Without a designated set of criteria to determine whether higher education institutions are enforcing the First Amendment, experts worry that funding decisions could fall to simple subjectivity. It could also lead to a higher burden upon faculty and administration. President of Widener University Julie Wollman stated, “Beyond what we do every day, how would you show you’re promoting free inquiry? What would the compliance look like, and what kind of added reporting and administrators would we need to meet this requirement?” Catherine J. Ross, a law professor at George Washington University, also noted that the order does not fully understand how universities function, especially private ones. “Not everyone has the right to speak at a college. Colleges get to choose.” This lack of clarity led some to prophesize a Supreme Court decision on the First Amendment to come soon. With such uncertainty in the air, college campuses across the U.S. are likely to continue seeing disagreements on what constitutes free speech for some time to come.