Monday, April 30, 2012

How One Instructor Teaches 2,670 Students

Read original article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

How One Instructor Teaches 2,670 Students 1
Kyle Green for the Chronicle
John Boyer teaches a megaclass in current events at Virginia Tech in person—and holds online office hours using Ustream.
In October, Myanmar's pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, got a quirky request on YouTube. A hyperactive instructor in a plaid jacket posted a video inviting her to do a Skype interview with his "World Regions" geography class at Virginia Tech.
Ms. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate often compared to Nelson Mandela, might have ignored this plea were it not for how the video ended. The camera pivoted from the instructor, John Boyer, to an auditorium filled with some 3,000 students. They leapt from their seats, blew noisemakers, and chanted her name as if the Hokies had scored a touchdown.
It worked. On December 5, Ms. Suu Kyi, who last month won election to Parliament after spending much of the past two decades in detention, took questions from Mr. Boyer's students via Skype. "I cried a little bit," says Alex Depew, a senior. "I'm not gonna lie."
The moment marked the biggest coup yet in Mr. Boyer's experiment with supersizing the classroom. Conventional wisdom deems smaller classes superior. Mr. Boyer, a self-described "Podunk instructor," calls that "poppycock." He's exploring how technology can help engage students in face-to-face courses that enroll from 600 to nearly 3,000 students.
It's a timely project that may suggest tips for others. In a recent survey of financial conditions at state universities, 56 percent of respondents said that budget constraints were causing them to collapse sections into fewer, larger classes, according to the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. At Virginia Tech, about two dozen classes exceed 300 students.
"They're not going anywhere," says Peter E. Doolittle, director of Virginia Tech's Center for Instructional Development and Educational Research. "We're better off learning how to teach well in large classes, rather than trying to avoid them."
Boyer describes his course as an "Intro to the Planet" that brings "the average completely uninformed American" up to speed on world issues. His approach? Decentralize the rigid class format by recreating assessment as a gamelike system in which students earn points for completing assignments of their choosing from many options (1,050 points earns an A, and no tasks, not even exams, are required). Saturate students with Facebook and Twitter updates (some online pop quizzes are announced only on social media). Keep the conversation going with online office hours.
And snag big-name visitors by turning the enormous class into a digital hive that swarms them with requests. Other recent guests have included Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen, whose recent movie focuses on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain, and Jason Russell, creator of "Kony 2012," a viral video about the brutal Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony.
"I'm not sure any of these things would have occurred without a class of 3,000 people," says Mr. Boyer, a senior instructor. "I totally can now foresee that this time next year we're going to get Barack Obama in the classroom, if not live, via Skype."
Mr. Boyer's popularity has also brought lessons in the pitfalls of megacourses. Students' biggest complaint is disruptive class members. Some behave like they're watching a TV show rather than a live lecture. Mr. Boyer once kicked out two students who were sitting on the floor in the back, wearing headphones and screening a movie on a computer.
Then there's the pushback from other professors. Can students learn in such a big class? How interactive can it be? Can Mr. Boyer meet all their needs—especially less prepared kids who could fall through the cracks?
"Teaching is an individual personal relationship with a student," says one skeptic, Linda Toth, an associate professor of psychology at California University of Pennsylvania who has studied the relationship between class size and student achievement. "It's not a show. It's not a circus."
Mr. Boyer's "show" begins on a Monday at 7:58 p.m., when his technical assistant, Katie Pritchard, blasts alerts to 9,000 Facebook and Twitter friends: Live online office hours are starting in 5 minutes! Join the fun.
With so many students in his "World Regions" class—2,670 in the fall section and 553 in the spring—these sessions are a key way to extend the classroom conversation. The experience feels like traditional office hours chopped up in a digital blender. Mr. Boyer hosts the sessions from his bottom-floor office in a redbrick building called Major Williams Hall. Some participants attend in person, some online; some are current students, others former ones who like to check in. Hanging out with Mr. Boyer is "more fun than quantum-physics homework," explains one former student, Harry White, who plants himself on the olive-green vinyl couch in the instructor's office. But even here much of the fun is virtual: The few students in the office follow on laptops and iPads as the instructor interacts with a much larger crowd online.
Perched behind his 20-inch screen, wearing one of his trademark plaid jackets, Mr. Boyer fields questions pinged in as instant messages. He responds on Ustream, a free Web platform that lets anyone broadcast a video feed through a Webcam.
"Mcpherson161 up in the hizzle!" Mr. Boyer hollers, reading the computer name of his first questioner. "Dude, what's going on, Mcpherson?"
What goes on, for part of the night, is Mr. Boyer discussing fallout from "Kony 2012." In November, the video's creator, Jason Russell, visited Mr. Boyer's class. This was before "Kony 2012" got more than 87 million YouTube views, and before Mr. Russell went berserk in San Diego, parading naked on the street until the police took him into custody.
Like a talk-radio pontificator, Mr. Boyer offers up a prediction: Mr. Russell's anti-Kony advocacy group, Invisible Children, will fold. But he sympathizes with the activist. In language a radio station would bleep—typical of a salty instructor who includes obscenities in his syllabus—Mr. Boyer argues that he wasn't prepared for the attention.
"He's not the first person that's done this," says Mr. Boyer, wagging a finger. "Isn't it like once every couple of years you see a Hollywood star go [expletive] crazy running through the streets of Hollywood naked? Or jumping out of a car?" He followed up with an even more obscene description of stars' behavior, adding, "People who are under intense public scrutiny crack."
Mr. Boyer, 43, is a self-described "blue-collar guy" whose colorful résumé includes stints working on a U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker and researching where to grow wine grapes in Virginia. He originally offered "World Regions" to 50 students. But interest spiked as his small-town fame spread. Undergraduates consider his class a rite of passage, like sneaking into the campus's underground steam tunnels. They can even buy pint glasses emblazoned with "The Plaid Avenger," a cartoon alter ego Mr. Boyer developed to add some flair to his teaching materials.
Mr. Boyer moved his class to a 575-seat lecture hall, but eventually even that space would fill up on the first day of registration, with up to 3,000 additional people still waiting to get in.
So Mr. Boyer conceived an experiment. Find the biggest hall on campus. Teach as many students as possible. And wipe out demand. Three years ago, he moved the class to the 3,000-seat theater in Burruss Hall, where James Brown has played. But droves of students keep enrolling.
"It reminds me of watching a Colbert Report episode," says Yates Jordan, a sophomore. "A 3,000-person class doesn't seem like it should succeed," he adds. But Mr. Boyer's is "the first class I've taken that really takes advantage of all the technological instruments that we can use today."
When class convenes the next day, a giant screen on stage displays a revolving triptych of social technologies. One section shows an international music space Mr. Boyer set up on, building excitement by filling the hall with a Mariachi tune. Another shows student tweets tagged with the class hashtag, "#wrvt." Another invites students to text their responses to a poll asking what news Mr. Boyer should cover today—the hunt for a French killer? North Korea's "sneaky" satellite launch? Al Qaeda's reactivation?
Underneath that digital glitz, though, Mr. Boyer's biggest skill turns out to be pretty low tech. He breaks down issues in informal language that engages even students who hate news, by highlighting absurdities and hamming it up with jokes.
Take North Korea. Pacing the stage, Mr. Boyer reminds students of a month-old deal in which its government accepted food aid in exchange for a moratorium on missile launches. Now comes news that the country's "wacky leadership" plans to launch a satellite "on a gigantic rocket," Mr. Boyer says. The instructor cocks his torso forward and mimics the international community's exasperated reaction: "Whaaaaaaat? Dudes! It was 30 days ago!"
Students chuckle. One, who had been reading reviews of the new iPad, now actively takes notes. "And the North Koreans are being adamant saying, No, it's not nuclear," Mr. Boyer continues. "It's not a rocket test. It's just a big-ass rocket that has a little satellite on it, all right? That we're trying to get to outer space because the satellite is going to be a commemorative plaque celebrating the 100th anniversary birthday of the leader of our state."
The wide-open nature of Mr. Boyer's class has spawned some headline-grabbing tangles with the broader public. In January, the media mogul Rupert Murdoch followed a fake Twitter account that Mr. Boyer had set up for an assignment that invites students to assume the identity of a world leader and tweet in their names for the semester. In February, a caricature of Muammar el-Qaddafi from the class Web site,, was burned by protesters outside the Libyan Embassy in Cairo.
But is all this education, or just entertainment? Mr. Doolittle, of Virginia Tech's research center, offers a study to demonstrate that Mr. Boyer's students are indeed learning. Midway through the semester, the center tested a sampling of 582 students on the ideas, concepts, and people to be covered in the second half of the "World Regions" course. Students took the test again at the end of the term. Average performance improved from 43.4 percent to 74.3 percent.
At the end of the day, much of Mr. Boyer's effect on students seems beyond quantification. But students make it clear that he has inspired them. Like one who joined the Peace Corps because of the class. Or another who went on to work for an NGO in South Africa. Or Jennifer Mikell, a junior who overheard Mr. Boyer talking with a Chronicle reporter over lunch, and ran over to the table to gush about the class.
"Best teacher I've ever had," she said.

Friday, April 27, 2012

House Passes GOP Bill to Keep Student-Loan Interest Rate From Doubling

Read original article at The Chronicle of Higher Education
April 27, 2012, 1:30 pm
The House of Representatives voted narrowly this afternoon to pass a Republican-sponsored bill that would prevent the interest rate on new subsidized Stafford loans to undergraduates from doubling in July. The bill, which was approved on a largely party-line vote of 215 to 195, would pay the $6-billion cost of keeping the interest rate at 3.4 percent by using funds for preventive health care that are part of President Obama’s health-care overhaul.
That proposal drew a veto threat this morning from the White House, and Democrats in the House assailed the bill as part of a Republican attack on women’s needs. Republicans have called the money a “slush fund” open to misuse, and in an impassioned speech before the vote, Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the House speaker, criticized the White House and Democrats as having needlessly “picked a fight” on this issue, given that both parties say they want to keep the interest rate from rising.
House Democrats proposed paying the $6-billion cost by cutting subsidies to oil companies; Senate Democrats would do so by tightening taxes on owners of so-called S corporations, a plan backed by the White House. Mr. Obama made the interest-rate dispute central to his re-election campaign this week by devoting appearances at three swing-state universities to the issue. The House legislation (HR 4628), which would delay the interest-rate rise for one year, now moves to the Senate, where Democratic control means it is unlikely to pass.

Congratulations and welcome to Patricia Schecter

Congratulations and welcome to Patricia Schecter who was appointed chair of the PSU-AAUP Legislative Committee at thursday's executive council meeting.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Arbitrator Blocks U. of Northern Iowa From Basing Faculty Merit Pay on Student Evaluations

Read original article at The Chronicle of Higher Education
April 24, 2012, 6:22 pm
An arbitrator has ordered the University of Northern Iowa to stop requiring its academic departments to use student evaluations from every course taught by an instructor as the basis for deciding whether to award that faculty member merit pay. In a binding decision handed down on Monday, the arbitrator held that the university had violated a contract with the faculty union by deciding on its own to change the terms for awarding merit-based pay raises. The ruling is the second in a month in which an arbitrator has sided with the union in a dispute with the university, which has been at odds with faculty leaders over program cuts and other efforts to reduce costs.  In a nonbinding decision issued on April 5, an arbitrator held that the university last year terminated an assistant professor of finance, Gordon Klein, in a manner that violated his academic freedom and due-process rights.

Republicans Release Bill to Stop Interest Rate Increase

Read original article at Inside Higher Ed
April 26, 2012 - 3:00am
As President Obama continued his barnstorming tour to campuses in key election swing states calling for Congress to stop the interest rate on federally subsidized student loans from doubling, several bills were introduced to do just that, including one from House Republicans. The key difference among the bills is how they would pay for an extension of the 3.4 percent interest rate, estimated to cost about $6 billion in the first year. A bill from Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, would pay for the extension by changing a tax loophole for so-called S corporations. A House version announced by Representative George Miller, a California Democrat, would cut oil subsidies, and a version from House Republicans, introduced by Illinois Republican Judy Biggert, would cut money from a portion of the health care law used for disease prevention and public health.
The bill represents a reversal for House Republicans, who had previously said they weren't interested in a short-term extension. Future debate is likely to center around what will be cut to pay for the extension, without which student loan rates will increase July 1.

UO’s union objections withdrawn | Instructors and tenured faculty will be allowed in a single bargaining unit

Read original article at Eugene Register Guard

UO’s union objections withdrawn

Published: (Wednesday, Apr 25, 2012 05:00AM) Midnight, April 25

The University of Oregon on Tuesday cleared the way for a faculty labor union by dropping objections to including both tenured faculty and year-to-year instructors in the same bargaining unit.
By “5 o’clock on Friday” the union is likely to be certified by the Oregon Employment Relations Board, a board official said, assuming that the union submitted sufficient cards signed by the majority of the roughly 1,900-member faculty.
“It’s a really big deal,” said Scott Pratt, a UO philosophy professor and member of the United Academics union organizing committee. “It gives us a kind of weight in having conversations about institutional priorities — about where resources go, where we need more resources — that we just haven’t had.”
The agreement with UO administrators was a surprise turnaround from the university’s April 4 objections, filed with the employment board, that argued that most types of faculty did not belong in a single union.
“I wouldn’t say it was a change of heart. It’s more an acknowledgement of the bargainers desire to have the one unit,” acting UO Provost Lorraine Davis said. “Our goal all along was to respect the rights of the faculty in their right to organize despite the fact that our preference would have been, perhaps, two units, we will support and work to make this work as they desire.”
The agreement announced Tuesday morning avoids employment board hearings that were scheduled for May 7, 8 and 9, to determine the composition of the union.
Precedent was on the union’s side. Faculty unions at Portland State University, Western Oregon University and Eastern Oregon University all contain both instructors and tenured professors.
Pratt said the administration researched its questions, looked into Oregon labor law and then consulted with attorneys.
“At that point it was, ‘Well, OK then,’ ” he said. “The positive read on it is they were trying to deal with the issues raised by unionization, and they now have come to terms with it.”
The union’s success comes on the heels of some hard feelings when interim president Robert Berdahl told organizers he had not previously pledged to be neutral on formation of the union, when organizers had believed otherwise, union organizers said.
“It was all very confusing because we all heard the neutrality statement originally, and it did come from the president’s office,” Pratt said. “It may be members of the administration themselves were not neutral about unionization, but institutionally there really was only one answer.”
Davis said the university acknowledges the faculty’s right to organize.
“We didn’t oppose the organization effort, nor did we support it. We simply recognize the rights of those who chose to go this route and, if it’s a majority, we’ll accept that and make it work.”
Berdahl’s “point of view is consistent with what I’ve expressed,” she said.
But some faculty members were disappointed by the developments Tuesday, said Dev Sinha, an associate professor in the mathematics department.
He said the single bargaining union will add an unwelcome layer of complexity to departmental governance, because faculty department heads — who are supervisory and cannot be in the union — will now be at odds with tenured faculty.
Also, disparate groups are in the union, he said, including professors who have given their lives to the institution, and “somebody who is teaching one class on aerobics. We are in the same bargaining unit with them. Not to be snobby at all, but we have very different professional trajectories, professional interest on this campus, and now we are bound by one body to talk about how we negotiate our contracts.”
Sinha said he’d work with people and keep an open mind, but the adjustment will be difficult.
“There are people who are celebrating today and there are people who are not so happy. That’s a division that has been there this whole process. We’ll see how well that can heal.”
Pratt said union organizers are committed to representing the interests of all the faculty — including those who opposed the union.
“They’re all a part of the bargaining unit and they have a voice in the sense that we want to consult them.
“We want to know what their concerns are,” he said. “The next real job is going to be ours, and that’s the process of bringing people together and getting a constitution organized.”
“There are people who are celebrating today and there are people who are not so happy.”
Dev Sinha

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

What Do Adjuncts Want? Respect and Support

Read original letter to the editor at  The Chronicle of Higher Education
To the Editor:
Perry Glasser is right: no teaching career was promised to Joshua A. Boldt ("Who's to Blame? The Adjunct?" The Chronicle, April 1). But Mr. Glasser's approach is rather disappointing.
"The fact that 70 percent of all sections are being taught by underpaid adjuncts may be a shame and is undoubtedly exploitive, but it is no secret," he writes. But what Mr. Boldt's Adjunct Project attempts to reveal is the depth and variation of that exploitation. Changing exploitative conditions starts with quantifying what the conditions are.
"Had he performed due diligence on the marketability of a master's degree in English, he'd have learned there's a glut in the market," Mr. Glasser says. Translation: It's the adjunct's own fault. Putting the responsibility solely on the adjuncts—well, that's easy, isn't it? It's blaming the unemployed or underemployed, not the structure that encourages and facilitates the situation. That way the colleges who hire adjuncts aren't the problem, and full-time faculty members who get to avoid teaching those pesky "lower level" courses aren't the problem. (How many composition classes is Professor Glasser teaching this semester as a tenured faculty member at Salem State University? Zero, according to the university's Web site.) No, it's clearly the adjuncts. How's that different from blaming illegal immigrants for working in the U.S. illegally, rather than blaming the companies that hire them?
Professor Glasser is right that "nothing about a teaching career was promised" to Mr. Boldt. But as adjuncts are now the majority of instructors, why is Mr. Glasser so threatened by the idea of solidarity? After all, isn't that what has solidified his benefits, his tenure, his stability of employment? Why does he feel it's appropriate to bash adjuncts doing the same?
Adjuncts don't jump into teaching with any sense of entitlement or demand (nor is what we're claiming now an "entitlement"). We find our ways into it, often unexpectedly: sometimes for supplemental income, sometimes because opportunities arise, and sometimes because we fall in love with teaching as a result of TA'ing in grad school. Regardless, most of us aren't necessarily looking for full-time tenured positions like Mr. Glasser's.
But we would like a few reasonable things that many don't see as horribly extreme.
We would like respect and support from our institutions. We'd like respect from the full-time faculty members, since we're doing the jobs they won't, but also because we're often working just as hard, if not harder. I've regularly taught five to seven courses a semester on top of publishing articles and working other jobs. All the while, I've received regular disdain from faculty members (though not all faculty members) at Mr. Glasser's university (yes, I taught at Salem State as an adjunct).
We would also like more and better support—in terms of payment, stability, and benefits—from our institutions. I'd like payment that represents the work I do in a way that doesn't have me comparing my per-hour pay to that of someone getting paid less than minimum wage. And if I'm an adjunct at a college for three-plus years, I think some sense of stability should be afforded me. That I don't know if I will be rehired from semester to semester is insulting and reflects poorly on a college supposedly so invested in its students.
Also, if I've taught at a college for three-plus years, I should be afforded some benefits, such as discounted education—so maybe I can get a degree for a field that is less exploitative.
Lance Eaton
Peabody, Mass.

With Student Strikes Creating Havoc in Quebec, Talks Aim to Resolve Impasse

Read original article at  The Chronicle of Higher Education
A March 22 protest brought traffic to a standstill in downtown Montreal. Students from across Quebec have converged on the city numerous times during 11 weeks of protest against a planned 75-percent tuition increase at the province's public universities
Eleven weeks into a series of student-led strikes that have disrupted campuses across Quebec and brought hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets of Montreal over planned tuition increases, student leaders and government officials have begun negotiations in hopes of finding a way out of the impasse.
At issue is a planned 75-percent jump in tuition at Quebec's public universities, which was unveiled by the provincial government last fall. For students, that would amount to an increase of $1,625 over five years.
The government has made clear that it does not intend to back down. "The real question is the quality of postsecondary education in Quebec," Premier Jean Charest said several weeks into the strike, which is now the longest student strike in the province's history. Taxpayers are carrying the biggest share of financing of the province's universities and colleges, he said. "We're asking students to assume their fair share."
The strikes began in mid-February, when students on three campuses voted to boycott classes, then spread throughout the province as student associations organized votes and street protests.
The first serious clash with authorities took place in early March, when police officers in Montreal used tear gas and billy clubs to disperse more than 600 protesters who had tried to enter a building that houses the organization representing university rectors.
There have been several mass protests, in which as many as a 250,000 people participated, and masked anarchists have joined in some of the demonstrations. Tensions came to a head last week when police officers were videotaped using pepper spray and tear gas during a confrontation at Montreal's convention center, where Premier Charest was speaking.
Representatives of the three student associations that have been leading the strike have now taken places at the negotiating table after agreeing to government demands that they condemn violence and call a 48-hour hiatus from protests. The student representatives will remain at the table "for as long it takes," a spokesman for one of the associations said.
The strike has the backing of labor unions, the Parti Quebecois, several community groups, and some prominent citizens. But recent polls show that public support for the protesters is falling, perhaps because of the cost to taxpayers. Quebec has the most debt of any province and its residents pay the highest rate of income tax in Canada. The street protests have cost millions in overtime for police officers, especially in Montreal.
Many of the striking students belong to one of three federations or associations—the largest is the Coalition large de l'Association pour une solidarité syndicale étudiante, or Classé—and voted, often by academic discipline, whether to strike. Most of the strikers come either from public universities or from junior colleges, known in Quebec as Cégeps. (Cégep is a French acronym that translates as College of General and Vocational Education.)
Many students have refused to boycott classses, though, and universities have sought court injunctions to keep protesters from blocking access to campuses.
Quebec's university students pay the lowest tuition in Canada, at around $2,500, which has led to little sympathy for the strikers among residents of other provinces. The strikers say that their complaint is less about money and more about access: If what is needed in today's economy is a college or university degree, they say, then it is the public's obligation to provide such an education free. In response to the government's concern about balancing the budget, they suggest that university administration could become more efficient. Strikers, for example, have questioned the emphasis on spending money on research instead of teaching.
But some education analysts question the strikers' contention that raising tuition means decreased access to higher education.
"Put bluntly, that argument is not supported by any evidence," says Harvey Weingarten, the head of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, a research agency created by the government of that province. "There's been a lot of research into that claim but there's no evidence. Indeed, we've found that higher tuition produces higher participation."
He noted, though, that Quebec is different from the other provinces. Its students can mobilize effectively and essentially shut down sections of universities and the junior colleges—something that isn't seen in other provinces.
This is the ninth student strike in the provice since 1968, following Quebec's so-called Quiet Revolution, which ushered in sweeping educational reforms of the church-based educational system. One of the pillars of that reform was a recommendation for the abolition of higher-education fees.
And Cégep, the junior-college system, is unique to Quebec. Attending a Cégep institution is mandatory for most students planning to go on to university. The system also provides technical training for skilled workers, and many employers who depend on the Cégeps for new hires are putting pressure on the government to settle the strike.
While Cégep students pay no tuition, they have been among the most committed in the strike because they will have to pay the increased cost when they move on to university.

Proposed Louisiana Laws Could Cause Professors to Delay Retirement

Read original article at  The Chronicle of Higher Education
Fast-moving legislation in the Louisiana State Legislature calls for professors at public colleges to work longer to collect full retirement benefits and pay more toward their pensions as part of a sweeping plan to bail out a debt-laden state pension system.
Those controversial plans, along with other retirement-related bills, were proposed by the state's Republican governor, Bobby Jindal. Mr. Jindal says the legislation, part of a package of retirement bills he is backing, is necessary to overhaul a state pension system that is too expensive to maintain. Mr. Jindal has said the state's four retirement plans are nearly $19-billion short of the money needed to pay for promised benefits. Covering those costs, the Jindal administration says, would cut into money the state needs to use for other critical state services. They are scheduled for debate on the Senate floor today.
The retirement changes would be yet another blow, professors say, at a time when public-college faculty have gone four consecutive years without raises as state officials pushed ahead with steep budget cuts.
"Everybody is unhappy about it, without question," says A. Ravi P. Rau, a professor of physics at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. "There's been no regard given to how this will affect people."
About 60,000 people, among them rank-and-file state employees, would be a part of a much-different pension system if the bills become law. Under one bill, state employees, including those at public colleges, would have to work longer—up until age 67—to get full retirement benefits, depending on their current age and how long they have been in the system. Another bill would increase the amount state workers have to pay toward their retirement from 8 percent of their salary to 11 percent.
Critics of the changing retirement age, which would go into effect on June 15, if it is approved, say they could trigger a mass exodus of state employees who want to retire under the old, and more favorable, pension system. Employees in the current system, none of whom get Social Security benefits, can retire as early as 55 if they have 25 years of service.
"One of the unintended consequences of this is that it may cause a number of faculty to go ahead and retire on short notice," says Robert McKinney, executive officer of the Faculty Senate at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "That's a campuswide concern because consequently we'd have to fill a large number of positions, and hiring season is over."
Barbara Heifferon, a member of the newly formed faculty union at Louisiana State, wrote a letter to the editor of the institution's student newspaper that urged professors to join LSUnited "to stop the erosion of promises made to us when we were hired."
"When faculty signed contracts with the state to teach at LSU, we trusted that those contracts would be honored," Ms. Heifferon, a professor of composition and rhetoric, wrote in her letter, published last week in The Daily Reveille. "Now the state is trying to change the rules."

Bills in Other States

Similar moves to stabilize state pension plans are being debated elsewhere, including in Illinois. There, Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, proposed a plan last week that he says would eliminate the state pension plan's deficit of $83-billion by 2042.Mr. Quinn's proposal, like Louisiana's, would raise the retirement age to 67 and increase the amount employees contribute toward their pensions by 3 percent, among other things.
The Campus Faculty Association, the faculty union at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said in a written statement that it "cannot accept a solution that shifts onto employees what is the employer's contractually obligated part of compensation."
In Louisiana, opponents of the retirement legislation have promised to legally challenge the changes to their retirement plan if they become law, saying the changes are unconstitutional.
Mr. Rau, who is 66, is already eligible for full retirement under the current system. He is a 38-year veteran of LSU. The new measures would not apply to him because they exempt employees who have more than 30 years of service. Yet, he's concerned about what the proposed measures would mean for his colleagues and for his university's ability to attract faculty in the future.
One of the retirement bills slated for debate in the House would eliminate the current pension system, in which employees get a set amount of money based on their salary and years of service. State workers hired after July 1, 2013, would be put into a retirement plan that is similar to a 401(k), although unlike a 401(k), contributions into such a plan would be protected from investment losses. "For me, it doesn't really matter, but I do feel very sorry for the junior faculty," Mr. Rau says. "I'm quite sure that some people will think twice about coming here."

Court Approves $145 Million Apollo Settlement (University of Phoenix)

Read original article at  Inside Higher Ed
April 25, 2012 - 3:00am
A U.S. District Court in Arizona last week approved a $145 million payment by Apollo Group, Inc., to settle a class action lawsuit, according to a corporate disclosure. Originally filed in 2004, lawyers for shareholders had alleged that company officials made misleading statements about a Department of Education investigation of student recruiting practices at the University of Phoenix. The court dismissed the securities-fraud verdict against Apollo and former company officials as a result of the settlement.

Faculty Union Advances at U. of Oregon

Read original article at  Inside Higher Ed
April 25, 2012 - 3:00am
A faculty-administration agreement has cleared the way for a faculty union (including both tenure track and non-tenure-track faculty members) at the University of Oregon. The union -- organized jointly by the American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers -- first submitted cards indicating that the professors wanted to unionize. The administration objected to the make-up of the bargaining unit, but negotiations resolved those differences, and the process of union certification is now expected to proceed. The new union is the result of a campaign by the AFT and the AAUP to jointly organize more faculty members at public research universities. Union organizers pledged to use collective bargaining to improve working conditions for all instructors in ways that would also improve the quality of education.
Robert Berdahl, interim president of the university, issued a statement in which he said that "we have acknowledged from the beginning that our faculty has the right to organize. We did not oppose the organization effort nor did we support it. We simply recognized the rights of those who chose this route." His statement added: "While the University of Oregon has a long history of working with collective bargaining units on our campus, a faculty union will present unique questions that must be addressed. This will be particularly true when we account for tenured and tenure-related faculty. For example, tenure-related issues typically involve peer review. The peer review process is an essential means by which universities have always assured the achievement of quality; it must remain central to how we evaluate faculty in the future, even with a union overlay."

Bill Introduced to Stop Interest Rate Increase

Read original article at  Inside Higher Ed
April 25, 2012 - 3:00am
As President Obama began a three-state tour of college campuses, making a speech in North Carolina about the importance of keeping the interest rates for federally subsidized loans at 3.4 percent, House and Senate Democrats said they intend to introduce legislation today to stop the rate from doubling and pay for the extension by ending a tax break for self-employed. The interest rate for subsidized loans, currently at a historic low, is scheduled to double to 6.8 percent on July 1 if Congress takes no action.
The bill, the Stop the Student Loan Interest Rate Hike Act of 2012, would pay for the lower rate -- which costs about $6 billion per year -- by limiting a tax provision that allows owners of certain kinds of corporations, called S corporations, to avoid payroll taxes on their earnings. About 4 million S corporations exist in the US, including many professional offices like doctors or law firms, the Associated Press reported. They do not pay corporate earnings taxes, instead redirecting the income to their owners, who pay income taxes on that money (but not payroll taxes for Medicare or Social Security). Under the Democrats' bill, such corporations making more than $250,000 per year and with fewer than three owners would no longer be able to avoid payroll taxes.
It was unclear whether the plan would get any Republican support.

USC adjunct job ad that prohibits hiree from teaching elsewhere rankles many

Read original article at Inside Higher Ed
April 25, 2012 - 3:00am
Advocates for adjuncts were focused Tuesday on a job ad that many felt went too far. The candidate for the adjunct position could not hold a full-time, part-time, or adjunct teaching position at another university, the ad specified. The job, at the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education, was about “Framing the Social Context of High School Needs.”
It was the last paragraph in the ad, the one about the chosen candidate not being able to work at any other university, that had adjuncts agitated.
Many colleges and universities limit their tenure-track faculty members from teaching elsewhere, or discourage them from doing so. But to adjuncts, such limitations seem shocking because employers of adjuncts aren't offering full-time salaries or benefits, so working at multiple institutions is seen as a basic necessity. Many worried about the possibility of a new way of limiting their economic well-being.
Gwendolyn Bradley, senior program officer with the American Association of University Professors, said a member of her organization brought the ad to her attention. “It was baffling. It is not feasible for an adjunct to teach at one place only and make a living,” Bradley said. “Maybe they are looking for a certain kind of adjunct, and it didn’t come through in the ad. I know that some place cap the number of courses that one person can teach.”
More criticism came from Maria Maisto, the president of the New Faculty Majority, a coalition of non-tenure-track faculty members, who said the ad was problematic. "I can't see how it can be ethical for them to say what an adjunct can or cannot do to make a living. I can understand that is a specialized course, unlike, say, English composition, but people have a right to question as to how they can put that kind of stipulation," she said. "I'm curious about what the legal opinion might be."
Lawrence Picus, vice dean for faculty affairs at the Rossier school, said their assumption was that the adjunct, who would bring a very special kind of expertise, already had full-time employment as a professional, for example, as a superintendent of a school system or a school principal.
“We use adjuncts to meet very specific needs. They teach on an occasional basis and we want them to focus on our school, rather than across multiple universities,” Picus said. “Our intent is not to make life difficult for anybody. But we ask that the person not be teaching at a similar program at another university.”
The dean’s explanation might not be enough to placate adjunct faculty members, who seemed upset at the recruitment ad as a matter of principle. The AAUP Committee on Contingency and the Profession is planning to write a letter to the school, Bradley said, but further details were not available Tuesday.
The advertised job is an online/remote job for the School of Education’s master’s program in teaching, which went online in 2009 and soon quadrupled its enrollment.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

AFT Oregon - U of O Faculty Reach Agreement to Certify United Academics (AFT, AAUP)

Read original article at AFT Oregon 
University of Oregon (U of O) Faculty reached an agreement with administrators to allow certification of their union, United Academics by the Employment Relations Board (ERB). The union, affiliated with both AFT and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), will include more than 1,800 tenure-line and non-tenure-track faculty, adjunct instructors, research associates and assistants, and post-doctoral scholars.

“This agreement and subsequent certification pave the way for UO tenure-related and non-tenure-track faculty – working together – to have a more substantive voice in refocusing our university on the core mission of teaching and research,” said Scott Pratt, Professor of Philosophy.  
Faculty filed a clear majority of union authorization cards with the ERB in March. The administration responded with a broad range of objections to the proposed bargaining unit. This week, the administration and the faculty were able to resolve those issues and the university will recognize the faculty union, making hearings and legal delays unnecessary.
“Faculty on the Organizing Committee appreciate the UO administration’s good faith effort to reach this agreement, avoid unnecessary delays, and move forward to our first negotiations,” said Michael Dreiling, Associate Professor of Sociology. 
Among the many Research One universities in the western United States, United Academics will be the largest integrated bargaining unit of tenure-related and non-tenure-related faculty.  
 “We now have the official means to negotiate and collectively bargain for better working conditions, transparency, and accountability. This will improve the learning conditions of our students,” said Tina Boscha, Instructor of English.

Employers to pay higher PERS rate

By Dennis Thompson Jr.
Statesman Journal
January 28, 2012
Weak returns for the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System investment fund likely will
cause a dramatic increase in pension payments from Oregon cities, counties, school districts
and other public employers in 2013, PERS consultants told the agency's board Friday.
Public employers now pay on average 15.6 percent of payroll to PERS, payments that will
ensure the system's financial stability over the next 20 years.
Those rates likely will increase to somewhere around 20.5 percent to 21 percent of payroll
when new PERS employer rates are set for the 2013-2015 biennium, said Matt Larrabee, an
analyst for agency actuarial consultant Milliman.
That amounts to an estimated rate hike of 33 percent for PERS employers. Following Larrabee's presentation, PERS board chairman James Dalton urged public employers to plan for PERS rates to go "up and to the right" in the coming biennium. Those rate estimates do not include the 6 percent "pick-up" that some public employers pay on behalf of their workers, covering the cost of employees' legally mandated personal contribution to PERS.
Larrabee spoke to the board after PERS executive director Paul Cleary laid out reported earnings from PERS' investment portfolio, which is managed under the Oregon State Treasury.
The PERS investment fund earned 2.2 percent in 2011, and 7.3 percent over both 2010 and
2011. Both figures are well below the 8 percent annual target PERS has set for its investment
About 71 percent of PERS' revenue comes from earnings of its investment fund, which was
worth $54.7 billion as of the end of December.
The rest comes mainly from employers. When investment earnings fall, the amount paid by
employers increases to cover the difference and maintain the system's financial stability.
Increases in pension rates can drain money from other priorities that a public employer might
have — parks, roads, school equipment and the like.
PERS' investment earnings were dented by its stock portfolio, which suffered an 8.2 percent
loss in 2011. Rumblings in the international market put the largest dent in the portfolio, with
PERS' foreign stocks down 13.45 percent for the year, Cleary said.
"The equity market has yet to fully recover" from the 2008 market downturn, Cleary said. "This
year, you didn't see any recovery, and in the international market it fell quite a bit."
PERS' real estate and bond holdings did offset investment losses and allowed the fund to end
the year slightly ahead.
Larrabee's statement is an unofficial estimate. The report on PERS financial health that will be
used to set 2013-2015 rates will be presented in July, and employer rates for the coming
biennium will be set in September.

UO teaches lesson in cynicism after union vote

Read Original Article at Eugene Register Guard
Published: (Wednesday, Apr 18, 2012 05:00AM) Midnight, April 18

Apparently, at the University of Oregon, democracy is an idea that’s good enough to teach students, but not good enough to live by.
Over the past six months UO faculty have been intensely debating the question of whether to form a union. There are plenty of reasons to organize — ongoing cuts to faculty health insurance, overcrowded classrooms, and many other cuts to core missions while choosing to invest heavily in athletics and growth in administration. After extensive debate last term, a majority of both tenure- and non-tenure-track faculty formally voted to unionize together.
When the union drive was announced in January, the UO stated that its leaders “support the right of workers to organize and have maintained neutrality on the issue of a faculty union.” But now that faculty members have actually spoken, administrators decided they don’t want to honor the results of the vote after all.
Last week, the UO revealed the hiring of two anti-union law firms, including a San Francisco firm that runs seminars promising to help managers keep their workplace “union-free.” While fancy out-of-state lawyers may cook up sophisticated arguments for why faculty, in particular, shouldn’t be allowed a union, the truth is that this firm is devoted to denying union rights for all types of employees; in California, the firm is currently engaged in a fight to deny union rights to dining hall workers at Pomona College.
With the help of such lawyers, administrators are using scarce university resources to put in place extensive legal obstacles to the faculty union. Now, suddenly, the vote doesn’t matter, democracy doesn’t matter, the will of faculty doesn’t matter — apparently the only thing that matters is that administrators don’t want to have to negotiate with their faculty.
When questioned about the shift away from a neutral position, interim UO President Robert Berdahl surprised faculty representatives by asserting that he never said he was neutral, even though a spokesman from his office had said last term that the administration was neutral.
UO faculty have a legal right to a union. Oregon law is clear on this. Faculty unions similar to the one proposed by UO faculty already exist at Portland State University, Eastern Oregon University and Western Oregon University.
The long list of objections to a faculty union raised by UO administrators makes clear that they are not simply objecting to some aspect of the proposed union; instead the administration is opposing faculty unionization generally. While the proposed UO union includes nearly 2,000 faculty, the UO administrators have objected to all but approximately 200 faculty being in the proposed union.
This is not reasonable. Historically, the Oregon Employee Relations Board has generally preferred broader and more inclusive unions, such as the ones at PSU, WOU and EOU — all of which include tenure-track and non-tenure track faculty together. The union UO faculty have proposed and voted for follows these models, so it is in keeping with Oregon law and precedent.
Opposing employee unionization is anti-democratic behavior, and is offensive in any industry. In a university setting, it takes an additional toll: It threatens to undermine the very values the university stands for in a free and democratic country. The university, as I understand it, strives to model civic life by being an open and democratic institution. This was why the administration at first said it would remain neutral and allow the faculty to decide democratically whether or not it wanted a union. Now these principles are suddenly not important.
Whatever subjects students may choose as their majors, this year UO administrators are providing them an education in cynicism. No longer is the university a civic model; instead the administration’s behavior says to all of us: “You know all those things students are taught about philosophy and democracy, Plato and Jefferson? Those are just for inside the classroom! When you step outside into the real world, it’s dog eat dog and might makes right.” Democracy is important only as long as the faculty does not try to vote for something of which the administration does not approve.
Faculty are not asking administrators to agree to any particular proposals at this point. All we’re asking is for them to operate in good faith and not try to block faculty unionization generally. The administration could simply choose right now to honor the outcome of the democratic faculty vote, as did the administration at PSU 30 years ago.
Instead of hiring two law firms to oppose faculty unionization, the UO administration could choose to negotiate with faculty based on mutual respect, and to act in ways that preserve rather than undermine the bonds of community.
Jane Cramer, an associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon, is a member of the organizing committee of United Academics at the UO.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Inside Higher Ed: Is the AAUP about to change course?

Read the original article at Is the AAUP about to change course? | Inside Higher Ed

Rudy Fichtenbaum
On her campaign website, Irene Mulvey, a professor of mathematics at Fairfield University, has a statement from an endorser that characterized this year’s election of the American Association of University Professors’ office-bearers as one that would decide the future course of the organization. The AAUP would either remain true to its commitment to standards and principles of the profession, or focus on unionization as a way to achieve its goals, it said.
In results declared Wednesday night, Mulvey, whose bid for president was endorsed by outgoing AAUP President Cary Nelson, lost by about 1,000 votes, (a sizeable margin in an election where the total number of votes cast in the contest was about 3,500) to Rudy Fichtenbaum (seen above), an economics professor at Wright State University and a former member of the organization’s National Council. Fichtenbaum’s campaign had stressed the role of union organizing to protect the profession and bring reform to higher education, and he is part of a group that has been critical of the ouster of Gary Rhoades [1] as the AAUP's general secretary last year.
Was the statement on Mulvey's website just election hyperbole, or is there a battle for the soul of the AAUP?
Mulvey did not return phone calls Thursday, but others are talking. Many see an increased emphasis on organizing as necessary for the AAUP to bring in more members and make itself more relevant, while some AAUP members feel that the core mission of the organization will remain unaffected. The AAUP represents faculty members at some campuses for purposes of collective bargaining but the association's roots are in taking stands on academic freedom and issues that affect professors -- and much of the country does not allow unionization of public college faculty members, while private faculty unionization has largely been shut down nationally by court rulings for years.
While Nelson, the outgoing president who served three two-year terms (the maximum allowed under the AAUP constitution), was quick to say that Fichtenbaum and other elected officers were very knowledgeable about collective bargaining, he said he also hoped that they would boost the AAUP’s work in more traditional areas.
“I hope they also support the traditional strengths that define what the AAUP is: Committee A policy statements and reports, amicus briefs from the legal department, recruitment of new members devoted to our core principles, and government relations work. We need to sustain all these activities at their current levels,” he said.
Fichtenbaum repeated Wednesday what he had said during his campaign: union organizing will be a priority. “That certainly is a direction we would like to take the AAUP. Tradition is important and we support the core policies of the AAUP but we need to build an organization of activists who will work together. There are private institutions where having a union might not be possible but we can still have collective action to defend academic freedom and shared governance,” he said. But critics have questioned whether the AAUP has the financial resources to do more of any one of its missions without sacrificing resources in other areas.
The AAUP president-elect said all this may alter the character of the AAUP slightly, but it could also be the foundation for supporting the historic mission of the AAUP. “What is the best way to achieve academic freedom, shared governance and protect economic interests of faculty members? I think the answer is being an organization of activists, where the core values of the AAUP remain a centerpiece.”
Fichtenbaum said his main goals revolve around increasing AAUP membership, which is currently about 40,000, and building more coalitions, including those representing the interests of non-tenure-track faculty. “We continue to support tenure, of course. But we support the idea of academic freedom for all faculty,” he said.
John Thelin, a professor in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky and higher education expert, said that the AAUP might be forced to make collective bargaining more of a priority because of the difficulty of making progress on other issues. “Management and administration, they stopped fighting the fight. They just evaded it by not hiring as many tenure-track faculty,” he said. “What I come away with is a great sadness, because I think they are being forced to do this to survive.”
Some members, like Michael A. Olivas, former general counsel of the AAUP and a law professor at the University of Houston, cautioned against jumping to conclusions based on the election statements.
“These things are not mutually exclusive. President Obama might decide to pay more attention to comprehensive immigration reform if he gets a second term. But that doesn’t mean everything else is going to fall by the wayside,” he said, and pointed out that the AAUP has been involved in collective bargaining for a very long time. “He [Fichtenbaum] comes from that side [collective bargaining] of the house, so he is likely to emphasize that side,” Olivas said.

State worker notebook: PEBB health rates will rise

Read original article at  Statesman Journal
10:32 AM, Apr. 23, 2012
Written byDennis Thompson Jr.
This year, state employees began paying 5 percent of their health insurance premiums, which up until now had been fully covered by the state of Oregon.
Gov. John Kitzhaber insisted that state workers’ unions agree to the new premium contribution, arguing that workers needed “skin in the game” to better understand the challenges caused by ever-escalating health care costs.
That lesson in practical health care economics is about to be brought home to state workers, according to preliminary rate figures discussed by the Public Employees Benefit Board last week.
Full-time employees enrolled in the PEBB Statewide plan are likely to pay an additional $4.03 to $5.52 per month for their medical coverage in 2013, depending on how many folks are on their policy. That’s thanks to an 8.2 percent increase in coverage costs, PEBB’s rate renewal figures show.
Workers covered by Kaiser Permanente will pay $2.10 to $2.88 more each month in 2013, as rates for that medical plan have increased 4.3 percent.
PEBB has not approved these rates yet. That vote by the board is scheduled for next month.
But if these rates stand, state workers will pay between $52.91 and $72.48 a month for PEBB Statewide coverage (which is managed by Providence Health Plans), and between $50.61 and $69.33 a month for Kaiser. Again, that’s depending on how many family members are covered by their policy.
And that’s just for medical. Workers also will have to shell out $4 to $6 a month for dental coverage.
It’s hard to say whether the increase in premium contributions will matter to workers. After all, the cost difference between this year and next amounts to one cheap Subway footlong a month for PEBB Statewide members, and a cup or two of Beanery coffee a month for Kaiser members.
What should worry state workers isn’t the amount of increase that will occur in 2013. It’s the potential for future increase that the extra few dollars a month represents.
Unless Oregon and the United States as a whole gets their health care house in order, the real dollar amount of that 5 percent premium share will continue to increase every year, eating into workers’ take-home pay.
Coordinated Care Organizations could prove one ray of light, if they are able to provide good care more efficiently than state workers’ current health coverage options.
But workers can help, too, by taking steps to improve their personal health and reduce the amount of medical care they need. That is the point of the Health Engagement Model, however flawed that particular program has been.
Workers might want to look past the flaws and see that, ultimately, the HEM is intended to save them money in the long run.

Protesters’ new front: Americans have finally awakened to the decades-long corruption of higher education

Gan Golan holds a ball and chain representing his college loan debt, during Occupy DC activities in Washington, on Oct. 6, 2011. (Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Read original article at

Forget the ballerina on the bull. The iconic image of the Occupy encampments is a Zorro-masked Gan Golan as the Unemployed Superhero, caped but grounded by a ball and chain marked STUDENT LOANS. The costume contained the whole sprawling critique in one playful package: the recession, finance run amok, captured regulators, the betrayal and wasting away of the middle class. It was a comic book version of the message delivered by the Occupy kids who took a page from history and “did knowingly mutilate” their monthly student loan statements — from LA to DC like draft cards they burned.
A year ago, the student debt crisis was a quiet one. Default-triggered cascades of compounding interest and collection fees were matters of lonely shame and anxiety. Journalists writing on the issue networked through friends and family to find subjects willing to go on record. Then the debt-confession signs started popping up at OWS protests, and stories of debilitating student debt were everywhere. Numbers that had been a source of private depression became symbols of generational defiance. “I have $80,000 in student loan debt,” declared a typical sign. “How can I ever hope to repay that now?” Others demonstrated the vertiginous arithmetic of the classic default spiral: “Borrowed $26,000. Paid back to date $32,000. Still owe $45,000.”
There’s no shortage of statistics capable of illustrating America’s economic elephantiasis. Taxes, health care, wages — take your pick. But it’s the student debt numbers that most shock college graduates over 50. If you went to school in the 1960s or ’70s, it doesn’t seem possible that the class of 2012 is graduating with an average debt load of more than $25,000. The macro milestones tend to get more press — America’s $1 trillion in aggregate student debt now surpasses that owed on its credit cards — but it’s the 25 large that makes boomers whistle and start talking about the days when a semester at Berkeley cost the same as a trip to the laundromat.
Now Berkeley costs as much as Princeton, and the days of paying for any state university with a part-time job aren’t coming back. But neither is the time when exploding education costs went unchallenged and the loan industry got away with murder. Post-Occupy, there is a new militancy around student debt that signals a break with the decades leading up to the present mess. “There are groups popping up all over the place who are slowly coming together under one movement,” says Kyle McCarthy, an organizer with Occupy Student Debt and the creator of “Default,” a documentary airing on 140 PBS affiliates. “Our generation has no disposable income anymore. Some of us aren’t getting married, having kids, buying a house. People finally understand this is a huge freaking problem that isn’t going away.”
Indeed, the crisis grows with every graduating class. Amid an anemic recovery, America’s recent graduates continue to default in record numbers; according to some estimates as many as one in three. Tuition and fees at public and private schools are galloping ahead of inflation, while state funding per student has dropped by nearly a quarter since 2000. The number of students taking on toxic debt in the scandal-plagued private loan sector, where interest rates can tickle 30 percent, has more than tripled during the same period. Activist sites continue to be flooded with stories of student debt hell — of educated 20- and 30-somethings forced to choose between health care, day care and servicing the interest on ballooning student debts the laws ensure they will take to their graves.
It is a sign of the times that sites like aren’t the only ones crowd-sourcing student debt misery. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, launched last year over Republican opposition as part of the Dodd-Frank Act, is collecting stories from distraught borrowers as part of an investigation into corruption and abuse in the growing private student loan market. “For the first time, a government agency is empowered to supervise this industry and prevent a whole generation from losing trust in institutions promoting higher education,” says the bureau’s student loan ombudsman, Rohit Chopra. “The financial interests of these companies are often at odds with those they are claiming to serve.” The CFPB may be a little late to save those bonds of trust, but it plans to release its report this summer, possibly as part of congressional hearings.
The CFPB effort is a welcome but small development. It does not address the myriad larger issues that constitute the student debt crisis, a partial list of which includes federal loan debt and defaults, predatory collection practices, rising tuitions, disinvestment in public education and a lack of basic consumer protections around student loans such as bankruptcy. Another recent development that better reflects the scope of the problem is the Student Loan Forgiveness Act, which the House freshman Rep. Hansen Clarke, D-Mich., introduced in March. The bill would establish an income-based repayment plan that caps student loan payments at 10 percent of income over 10 years following graduation. After a decade, the remaining balance is forgiven up to $45,000.
“After 10 years of repayment, you should be able to save and make other investments in your life, but now increasingly what you get is a nightmare,” says Clarke. “It undermines American competitiveness when those best suited to start a business or buy a home can’t because of student debt. Freeing up $500 a month for millions of people over decades is real stimulus. The student debt bubble won’t burst the way the housing bubble burst, because the Treasury backs most of the loans, but crushing personal debt is a slow-burning social crisis that’s robbing people of their American dreams.”
The stimulus logic behind Clarke’s bill is supported by recent data showing student debt’s drag effect on the housing market. But it’s human-scale suffering that’s driving the increasingly pissed-off conversation outside Washington. When Clarke travels to Michigan to discuss his bill, he hears stories that could be multiplied thousands of times over in every state: of young people putting everything on hold and taking jobs they hate just to service the loan interest, of older Americans who went back to school to learn new skills now fearful that default will mean chunks of interest subtracted from their Social Security checks. An online petition in favor of Clarke’s bill is rapidly nearing its goal of 725,000 signatures.
Though Clarke’s bill is a nonstarter in the current Congress, it has the potential to serve as a rallying point for a growing movement. Among Clarke’s brain trust is a former assistant Brooklyn district attorney named Robert Applebaum. In 2009, Applebaum founded in disgust over the Wall Street bailouts that bypassed everyone else. The following summer he launched a petition to forgive all student debt. Intended as a conversation starter more than a policy proposal, the petition garnered more than 700,000 signatures and became the most popular campaign in the young history of
“So many indebted graduates entering a decimated job market has triggered a rapid shift in the conversation,” says Applebaum, who now organizes full time around the issue. “What we’re seeing are the spoils of what happens when education is treated not as a public good, but as a commodity, as just another way to turn a profit.”
With the class of 2012 preparing a graduation walk that for many means walking the financial plank, it’s worth asking: How did we get here?
- – - – - – - – - – - -
The student loan era begins with the Higher Education Act of 1965. The educational cornerstone of LBJ’s Great Society, the bill fueled the postwar democratization of higher education by funding need-based grants and zero-interest student loans. The act was no civilian expansion of the GI Bill, but began to shift the burden of paying for education from the government to students. Richard Nixon sped up this shift in 1972 when he created the Student Loan Marketing Association, a government-sponsored entity best known by its maternal nickname, Sallie Mae. The outfit was tasked with encouraging banks and schools to issue more student loans, which for a fee Sallie Mae would purchase and service, backed by the U.S. Treasury.
As long as tuitions stayed in line with inflation, Sallie Mae grew without controversy alongside college enrollment. Well into the 1970s, the typical student could cover the costs of college with part-time work, government grants, and zero- or low-interest federal loans. In the event of economic calamity, those loans could be discharged in bankruptcy.
Like so much else in the U.S. economy, this changed in the 1980s. The tuition-federal loan cycle is not well understood, but it’s likely schools began charging more simply because they could: A college degree was becoming the new high school diploma, and the Treasury, not the schools, was on the hook for the loans. States, meanwhile, began reversing the postwar trend of investing in community colleges and state university systems. In Reagan’s budgets, yearly increases in need-based Pell Grants, which targeted low- and middle-income students, came to a grinding halt. Where the maximum Pell grant covered 69 percent of the cost of a four-year college in 1981, it covered just 45 percent a decade later. The number is now 34 percent.
“By the time Reagan left office, the balance between need-based grants and interest-bearing loans had shifted dramatically,” says Stephen Burd of the think tank Education Sector. “And the student loan industry began to see its profits soar.”
No one understood the profit potential of this shift better than an ambitious Sallie Mae executive named Albert Lord. Within a decade of joining the company as comptroller in 1981, Lord rose to CEO with a plan to take Sallie Mae private and shift the company’s center of gravity from Washington to Wall Street. The desire was mutual. Sallie Mae’s assets multiplied eightfold during the Reagan years. Investors were salivating over the chance to get a piece of Sallie Mae’s expanding $15 billion portfolio of government-backed loans.
With enrollment numbers and tuitions ticking up, Bill Clinton’s election briefly threatened the plans of those planning to take the federal loan gravy train private. In 1993, Clinton instituted the Direct Loan program in the Department of Education. The intent of allowing the Department of Education to issue loans was to cut out middlemen like Sallie Mae and save money. But the industry’s friends in the newly Republican Congress successfully undermined the program. In 1996, Sallie Mae went private and began trading as the SLM Corp. All of the trends of the 1980s accelerated, and by the early aughts Lord sat on a personal fortune of $230 million. Sallie Mae’s 2003 annual investors report boasted of “strong fee income growth, largely from debt management operations.” With his profits Lord began building a private 18-hole golf course on his Maryland estate. Shortly after breaking ground, he bitched to the Baltimore Sun about having to deal with zoning officials. “I hate rules,” said Lord.
Not all rules. When he uttered these words, Sallie Mae had just spearhead the lending industry’s lobby effort behind the 2005 Bankruptcy Act, which stripped private student loans of bankruptcy protection. (Such protections around federal loans had long been chipped away.) Leading the effort in Congress was Lord’s golfing buddy and current majority leader, John Boehner. It was around this time that Sallie Mae hired Boehner’s daughter as an executive at one of its largest collection companies. Sallie Mae remains the largest donor in the history of Boehner’s PAC, followed by the unctuous for-profit education industry, where private student loans are most common, most toxic and least likely to result in a college degree.
The removal of bankruptcy rights from private student loans startled education economists at the time and remains a central grievance of student debt activists. “There was and is no public policy rationale for holding private student loans to the same standards as federal income taxes or child support,” says Mark Kantrowitz, author of three books on student finance and publisher of “These loans are comparable to credit cards.”
The Bankruptcy Act proved the high-water mark of student lending-and-collection industry influence. The following spring, “60 Minutes” aired an investigation that featured student borrowers in default spiral, as well as victims of sleazy lending and brutal collection tactics. For many viewers it was their first glimpse into the realities of modern student debt, where borrowers down on their luck can quickly find themselves drowning in runaway debt totals many times their initial loan. Following the segment, members of the newly elected Democratic Congress called for investigations and assembled a student loan reform agenda. They were assisted by New York state attorney general Eliot Spitzer, who unearthed multiple instances of Sallie Mae and other major lenders colluding with financial aid departments against the interests of students. The Senate Education Committee and the New America Foundation conducted their own investigations, uncovering high-level conflicts of interest and revolving-door hiring between Sallie Mae and senior management at the Department of Education.
The revelations did not shock Alan Collinge. The Tacoma native had spent the previous two years researching the industry and collecting borrower stories for his website,, some of which were featured in the “60 Minutes” segment. Among them was Collinge’s personal story of watching a $38,000 debt incurred studying aerospace engineering grow into more than $100,000. In the summer of 2006, Collinge launched a one-man crusade. He gave up his apartment, purchased a run-down Winnebago, and conducted a speaking-tour of the home districts of every member of the House and Senate education committees. He ended the tour in Washington, where he met with Sen. Hillary Clinton.
When the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008 resulted in a wave of new defaults, Collinge began organizing pissed-off borrowers who were just beginning to understand the depth of their hole. He collected the stories for his website and continued to agitate on Capitol Hill. By 2010, Collinge was a well-known gadfly among education economists and members of Congress. But it was a lonely vindication he felt when during nationally televised TARP hearings, the chair of the oversight panel, Elizabeth Warren, described the student loan industry as having won powers “that would make a mobster envious.”
He worried that not even Warren understood that the comparison was unfair to the mob, which actually wants fast repayment and makes plain the consequences of default.
“At least loan sharks look you in the eye and are upfront about the terms of the loan,” says Collinge. “The student lending industry, including the Department of Education, is structurally predatory and makes more money from defaulted loans. In the mob analogy, the lenders make more money breaking fingers.”
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Obama entered office with a moderate reform agenda and delivered. Fifteen years after Clinton established the Direct Loan program, Obama finally removed the right of private lenders like Sallie Mae to originate federal loans (though they continue to profit by collecting and servicing them). He created a Grad Plus program guaranteeing access to unlimited low-interest federal loans for graduate study. Most recently, he ordered the Department of Education to speed up the introduction of a new income-based repayment plan for federal loans. Less generous than Clarke’s bill, the administration’s plan caps payments at 10 percent of income (down from 15) over 20 years (down from 25) after which the balance is forgiven.
But like Clarke’s bill, Obama’s income-based repayment plan treats the symptoms, not the disease. It does nothing about the soaring costs of education, budget cuts, or widespread corruption and abuse in the private loan industry. Nor does it help the huge number of borrowers already in default with their federal loans.
“Obama’s IBR can help people entering school next year, but it’s limited to federal loans and does nothing for those who’ve already paid more than they borrowed and shouldn’t have to face another 20 years of payments,” says Collinge. “It also forces defaulted borrowers, who may have been defaulted improperly to begin with, to sign a fresh loan document that legitimizes a massively inflated amount.”
Perhaps the biggest problem with Obama’s program is that it ignores the baseline uncertainty of life in America. If you want to remain in the program, you have to stay current with payments for ten years. There’s little room for the unexpected.
As with health care, the U.S. is the higher ed outlier of the industrialized world. This November, British students staged massive protests against a new law that would have raised the maximum annual tuition charged by universities to $14,000 — or less than half of what California residents pay to attend UC-Berkeley. Closer to home, annual tuition at elite Canadian universities tops out at $6,000. But even this is too much for some regional Canadian governments. Newfoundland has maintained a tuition freeze since the 1990s, and last year it eliminated interest on all student loans. Experts say the first step in resolving America’s student debt crisis is a similar recommitment to quality public education. “You can’t fix the U.S. student debt problem without addressing disinvestment in public education, which leads you to federal and state lawmakers,” says Education Sector’s Steve Burd.
Making American higher education universally affordable again should be easy (unlike health care). There already exists a vast public infrastructure of state universities and colleges, as well as a widespread belief in government’s obligation to educate its citizens. But nearly a half-century after the signing of the Higher Education Act, the costs of attending college make a sick joke of LBJ’s signing ceremony claim, in which he described higher education as the path “to deeper personal fulfillment, greater personal productivity, and increased personal reward.” For today’s graduates, it’s just as often a path to a lifetime of debt bondage. Whether this will be the case for generations to come is still an open question. The answer depends on the Unemployed Superhero wielding his economic ball-and-chain not as an stage prop, but as a battle flail.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Who is ALEC and What Do They Want with Oregon? (Our Oregon Series)

Who is ALEC and What Do They Want with Oregon?

A billionaire backer of Mitt Romney made headlines recently with the claim that the super-rich have “insufficient influence” over U.S. politics. Now, most people know that’s simply not true, because we all feel the everyday impact of policies that have been written to benefit large corporations and the rich at the expense of middle-class families.

What’s less well known, though, is the extent to which the largest
corporations and the richest of the rich have conspired to turn American states into their own laboratories of pro-corporate policies. Through a shadowy group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the largest corporations in the country have extended their influence are writing laws in every state—including Oregon.

To help shed light on this secretive group, we ran
a series investigating ALEC and their accomplices in the Oregon legislature. We explored:

Part I:
What ALEC is and how it operates
Part II:
Which Oregonian Legislators are involved
Part III:
What ALEC policies are affecting Oregonians