The stories making headlines in higher education

The stories making headlines in higher education

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A judge's ruling in a LAWSUIT against the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has set off an alarm in higher education. The parents of Elizabeth Shin, a sophomore who committed suicide in 2000 by setting herself on fire in her dorm room, were told they could proceed with some of their claims against MIT in a $27 million lawsuit. The case likely will go to trial later this year.

Attorneys for universities and colleges have been watching the MIT case closely for several years because of the debate it raises about an IHE's responsibility for students' well-being. Sadly, suicides and student deaths happen on campuses large and small. The trend has been for IHEs to offer more counseling services to students, as MIT did with Shin. But how responsible is a university to monitor the mental health of students? What is the responsibility if, as in the Shin case, a student commits suicide after receiving treatment? There is no clear answer, but more guidelines will unfold as the case continues through the legal system.

In the most recent decision against MIT, Judge Christine McEvoy, a Middlesex Superior Court Judge, dismissed in August some of the suit's claims directly against MIT. She did rule, though, that the parents' lawsuit could proceed against four psychiatrists at MIT and two university administrators who are not mental health professionals. It reportedly is unusual to hold nonclinicians accountable for a person's mental health, but this lawsuit, specifically, can go forward against the housemaster of Shin's student residence and a student life dean. The judge ruled the housemaster and the dean had a "special relationship" with Elizabeth Shin. They could "reasonably foresee that Elizabeth would hurt herself without proper supervision."

Sheldon Steinbach, the general counsel of the American Council on Education, is concerned about the recent ruling. "There is a fear that administrators will overreact and just send troubled students home." The ruling further tests a student's right to privacy. In the case, Shin's parents say Elizabeth would have been better off had they been more appraised of her problems. But would parental involvement prevent students from seeking help in the first place? "Students visit health-care centers for many reasons," says Steinbach. Some need follow up for depression, or other complex mental health issues. Others need to discuss sexual behavior or substance problems. "How comfortable would students be if they knew that the center was going to turn around and call home?" Steinbach asks.

Shin had a troubled history at MIT. During 1999, her freshman year, she was hospitalized for overdosing on Tylenol with codeine. She was treated by psychiatrists for 14 months, notes an MIT statement. Prior to killing herself she had told two students she was planning her suicide. Administrators and psychiatrists met to discuss her case and one arranged for Elizabeth to receive treatment at a facility outside of MIT.

--Jean Marie Angelo

Tuitions at public universities will increase an average of 8 percent this year, according to the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. The increase is nowhere near as dramatic as last year's average 10.5 percent increase and the 13 percent hike the previous year. Of all states, Michigan appears to be increasing costs the most dramatically, according to AASCU's reporting. There, 11 state public colleges and universities are charging more, with tuition increases ranging from 9.8 percent to 18.5 percent. The University of Michigan will be charging 12.3 percent more.

Regents for California's public university system tried to soften the impact of tuition increases by phasing in hikes over a five-year period. A "compact" between the University of California and California State systems and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger clearly informs parents and students about planned hikes for each year. "It was important for students and families to be able to plan," Velma Montoya, an economist who served on the UC board of regents, told the media.

The AASCU notes that state universities had no choice but to raise tuition to make up for continued tight state budgets.

The average tuition increase at private colleges and universities is expected to be more modest--5.7 percent--according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

This compares to 6 percent increases for the past two academic years. What does this mean in hard costs? Attending Harvard University (Mass.) will cost 4.5 percent more, bringing the total for tuition, room, and board to an estimated $41,675.

--J.M.A.

OpenCourseWare is much like e-books and legal filesharing--a promising idea whose time has been slow in coming. Initially, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology grabbed a lot of attention in 1999 when it kicked off its effort to make course materials and lectures available online, free, to other scholars and learners. The response, though, seemed to take a quiet, slow-moving advance after the initial fanfare.

Now Tufts University (Mass.) has joined the movement. The university has uploaded materials from six health science courses and will add materials from its dental and international relations schools this fall. A $200,000 grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is funding this pilot program.

"[MIT] approached us," explains Mary Lee, M.D., an associate provost for Tufts. "A key MIT faculty member had a daughter at Tufts' veterinary school. They wanted OCW to add curricula in life sciences and thought our health sciences content would be a nice complement to what they already offer." To date, the MIT OCW project has published online materials for 1,100 courses.

--J.M.A.

"Hi, I'm Casey. Give me 60 seconds and I can show you how to complete your advanced college degree without ever stepping foot in a classroom." So says the animated come-on at the "University of Berkley" website, an online diploma mill that prosecutors believe has issued more than 12,500 bogus graduate degrees.

The website is said to have netted more than $35 million from people who paid between $2,000 and $5,000 for degrees that may be mistaken for genuine degrees from the University of California, Berkeley.

The university has complained about the website for two years, and last month Pennsylvania Attorney General Tom Corbett sued to stop it from doing business, but at press time, the site was still up and running. The reason? A Pennsylvania judge gave permission for the site to continue--as long as it promised not to do business with people from that state. The judge also unfroze the assets of the site's operator, Dennis Globosky, a former New Mexico State Police officer.

The ruling did nothing to address the larger, growing issue of false degrees that help people enroll in graduate and professional school, or land high-profile positions in business, education, and government. Two Mississippi high school teachers are currently fighting their local school board, demanding that the "doctorate degrees" they obtained from another unaccredited online university entitle them to pay increases commensurate with their titles.

The bogus degree business takes in, by some estimates, as much as $400 million a year.

--Tim Goral

Students at some universities may be carrying fewer textbooks this fall if a new digital project takes off. The Universal Digital Textbook Program, launched by MBS Textbook Exchange, will begin offering textbooks in PDF format at 10 college and university bookstores across the country.

"This is a natural progression for us," says Virginia France, marketing director at the Princeton University Store, an independent bookstore on the Princeton (N.J.) campus. "We believe that digital textbooks are the wave of the future. We don't think they'll replace textbooks, but we want to offer students the opportunity to get them if they want them."

Ten titles will initially be offered from publishers such as Houghton Mifflin, Wiley, McGraw-Hill, Thompson Learning, and SAGE Publications, says France. And, although print versions of the books will still be available, the lower price of the e-books may attract students.

"We'll be selling digital e-book cards for one-third less than the cost of a print book," says France. "The card is activated at the register with a code, then the student logs on to a website, enters the code, and downloads the book to their computer."

The e-books are encoded with DRM (digital rights management), which places strict limits on their usage. For example, they can be viewed only on the computer to which they were downloaded. They cannot be copied, and printing is limited to small passages. Most troubling to some critics, however, is that textbook activation expires after five months, leaving the books unusable.

Besides the Princeton store, other bookstores participating in the pilot are at the University of Utah, University of Oregon, Portland Community College (Ore.), California State University-Fullerton, The Book Exchange at West Virginia University, The Co-op Bookstore at Louisiana State University, Bowling Green State University (Ohio), Georgetown College (Ky.), and Morehead State University (Ky.).

This Universal Digital Textbook Program project is just one of several digital textbook experiments going on across the country. The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey is experimenting with digitally capturing all curriculum material for the four years of dental school and providing it to students on a single DVD. The DVDs are updated twice a year with the most current material.

--T.G.

Given that students have grown up with computers, it would seem that many are destined to be IT pros. Not so, says Diana Oblinger, VP, EDUCAUSE, speaking at the National Association of College and University Business Officers annual conference. "The next generation appears to view computers as a refrigerator: They want what it provides but have no interest in how it works. This contrasts with many students who graduated a few years ago; many had built their own computers. So if you were hoping to close the help desk because younger students would know how to manage their own computers, you may want to reconsider."

Work & Peace in Academe: Leveraging Time, Money, and Intellectual Energy Through Managing Conflict

James R. Coffman; Anker Publishing, 2005; 220 pp; $39.95

Debate about issues such as policy, pedagogy, curriculum, and research are both essential to academic progress and a "paper tiger behind which outright uncivil or abusive behavior or chronic disruption of reasoned procedures can hide," argues author Coffman, who served as provost at Kansas State University for 17 years. With the distinctive characteristics of colleges and universities, compared to other organizations, the process of dispute prevention, resolution, and management should be unique as well. The book first examines productive and unproductive conflict in academic environments, where healthy debate can turn ugly and drain the institution's intellectual resources and energy. With case studies embedded, other chapters cover methods of conflict within the academic environment and the role of leadership in shaping policy and procedures for handling conflict with respect to the culture, history, procedures, and practices of the institution. An extensive four-part appendix focuses on longer conflict-resolution case studies.

--Melissa Ezarik

What's worth more: Leaving office views for Nobel laureates, or restoring views of crucial campus landscapes? That question, posed in a recent Society for College and University Planners (www.scup.org) conference session on historic buildings, reflects a major challenge facing colleges and university planners, who must consider buildings not as single entities but as part of a broader context.

Take Evans Hall at University of California, Berkeley, for instance. Built in the 1960s, the building sits at the end of an area historically envisioned as open space. It also happens to block views of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. Yet, its beautiful offices and conference rooms serve as an attractive benefit to faculty.

Buildings like Evans can leave planners in a pickle as they consider their campus' long-term use of land. UC Berkeley's strategic New Century Plan has helped leaders there to envision possible improvements. "It's how we want to look at the future," says Emily Marthinsen, associate director of Physical and Environmental Planning at the university and co-presenter of the SCUP session.

Evans Hall is part of that plan "because it's a building that does interrupt the landscape and because it's a building that doesn't fully work for all its activities," Marthinsen notes. The idea here, should funding become available in the future, is to replace it with a smaller building on each side of the current one, with a connecting courtyard.

Ironically, the original plans for Evans Hall were much more modest than the structure currently there, says co-presenter Frederic Knapp, a principal at Page & Turnbull who has served as an architect on many UC Berkeley projects. But a grant obtained by the university during the building's design phase added three levels to it.

--M.E.

If John Roberts Jr., President George W. Bush's nominee for the Supreme Court, fills the vacancy created by Sandra Day O'Connor's resignation, he will come there with an extensive record of representing higher-ed institutions and people.

As an attorney with Hogan & Hartson, a Washington, D.C.-based firm, he represented colleges, faculty members, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

As an appeals court judge, he wrote the majority opinion in a faculty-unionization case ruling for the defendant LeMoyne-Owen College (Tenn.).

Successfully defended Gonzaga Universty (Wash.) in a lawsuit that claimed it had violated the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

--J.V.

IBM strengthened its support for open source software when it announced a new relationship with higher ed. Big Blue is giving colleges and universities free access to its alphaWorks lab, a research center for emerging technologies, including new games and middleware tools.

Students and faculty members can delve into IBM's source code to learn how development projects work. In exchange, they can offer improvements and new ideas. The hope is that collaboration will result in better commercial products. In the past, IBM offered colleges and universities a 90-day trial to its research and emerging software products.

Other divisions at IBM are already furthering open source efforts in higher education. Its Business Consulting unit is working closely with the Sakai Project (www.sakaiproject.org), a higher ed-led effort that includes the University of Michigan, which is about to issue version 2.0 of its free course management system. The company is also supporting the Kuali Project (www.kuali.org), a separate effort of Indiana University and others to produce an open source financial management system for colleges and universities. OSPI, the Open Source Portfolio Initiative, (www.theospi.org) also is getting help from IBM.

"We have people building Sakai in IBM's DB2, or getting it to run on industrial-strength middleware," explains Patrick Carey, industry leader for higher education in the Business Consulting division. After gaining practical experience with the open source programs, IBM consultants report back to the three major higher-ed initiatives with the goal of tweaking and improving the programs. IBM's involvement also helps set standards for open source software--an important mission if disparate universities are going to use the same programs.

"Open source software that isn't based on standards has no value," insists Carey. The higher-ed landscape is strewn with such open source programs that fell by the wayside, he says.

Programs that are based in software standards move through the development phase quicker, he adds. And, obviously, the quicker a software is developed, the quicker commercial companies can offer their for-profit hosting and support services. To that end, IBM already is partnering with The rSmart Group (www.rsmart.com), a commercial venture that offers service and support for higher ed.

In a separate endeavor, several companies, along with Carnegie Mellon University (Pa.) have launched an effort to evaluate open source software. As any IT manager knows, free programs can come with coding problems and untested applications. To minimize headaches, Intel and SpikeSource are joining Carnegie Mellon to create the Business Readiness Ratings system, which will be distributed at www.openbrr.org.

--J.M.A.

Admissions folks are in agreement: The Scholar, a reality television series that had top-notch students competing for a $250,000 scholarship this summer by engaging in competitive group and individual activities, is not reality at all.

The admissions officers University Business spoke with noticed the perfect, and sometimes above 4.0, GPAs of a very diverse group of students.

"As a parent and as someone who was a valedictorian, I would hate to give the impression to teenagers that they have to be so picture-perfect to get tuition [paid for]," says Jennifer DesMaisons, associate director of Admissions at Marlboro College (Vt.). She thinks students who are not natural scholars might feel intimidated by the college admissions process.

Andrew Flagel, dean of Admissions and Enrollment Development at George Mason University (Va.), thinks the show is uncharacteristic because it focuses on a very small group of high achievers. "I think it's an interesting representation of the way society views the admissions process. It represents admission as a prize to be won rather than the educational system as a process with its own value."

"To me, it was a cross between Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and MTV's The Real World," says Christopher Tremblay, director of admissions, Gannon University (Pa.). He views the actual admissions process as more of an academic, rather than activities-oriented, experience, and the group activities the students participated in were unrealistic: "You don't apply for group admissions," he says.

The show may have been created because of the media attention college admission gets, including the popular rankings in U.S. News & World Report, he notes. "Also, that is the type of consumer we are now. We question everything. These millennia students, they're used to that type of scrutiny."

--J.V.


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