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Roundup: Pessimistic outlooks, grad students and panda love

Mié, 04/08/2020 - 00:00

Someone thinks there should be a study on why Tuesday is the worst day of the week. I have to agree. Congrats for making it to Wednesday.

The lockdown in Wuhan, China, is easing up, but we're not out of the woods. Some public health officials are urging people to follow stay-at-home orders now more than ever to continue to flatten the curve.

Let's have a little break from the grim news (before diving back in). Here are a few palate cleansers to start your day.

A Colorado animal sanctuary is holding virtual tours to satisfy your cute-animal fix.

Today's #loveinthetimeofcoronavirus award goes to these two pandas at the Hong Kong Zoo.

Feel free to post more happy distractions in the comments below.

Now let’s get to the news.

The coronavirus outbreak is going to hurt higher education for the next year, Moody's Investors Service predicts. A new report from the firm expects enrollment to be down in several countries, including the U.S.

Speaking of pessimism, a survey of college and university presidents found that most expect to lay off staff and reduce administrative budgets to survive the current recession.

Students are also thinking about their options. One in six who expected to enroll in a four-year institution in the fall are near the point of giving up, according to a survey. Two-thirds of graduating seniors are worried they won't be able to attend their first-choice colleges, as well.

Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senator and former presidential candidate, has joined 11 other senators to ask private student loan companies to help borrowers by discharging as many delinquent loans as possible during the crisis. Private student loan relief was not included in the recent $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief bill.

Here’s a quick roundup of our latest stories, in case you’ve fallen a bit behind (we don’t blame you):

The funding has been voted on and approved. Now advocates and college leaders worry it won't get to colleges in time, Kery Murakami writes.

Graduate students are facing some of the same dilemmas as faculty, but they aren't getting as much help, Colleen Flaherty reports.

Elizabeth Redden has a story on how colleges and universities are helping out their communities.

Students around the world -- except in China and Iran -- can take the Educational Testing Service's Test of English as a Foreign Language and the Graduate Record Examination at home, Scott Jaschik reports.

News from elsewhere

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a long read on the so-called ground zero of the coronavirus for higher education in the U.S. -- Seattle.

BuzzFeed has a handy guide for how Congress's recent legislation will affect your federal student loans.

How do college students really feel about pass/fail grading? The Washington Post has some insight.

Percolating thoughts

This is a time when everyone has an opinion. As journalists, we try not to have opinions, but we've gathered some interesting ones from others.

Two professionals in crisis communications say it's time to talk bluntly about college closures in The Hechinger Report.

The University of California system's president and the executive vice president of UC Health make the case for federal investment in research to fight off COVID-19.

Public health experts discuss what we need to do -- beyond stay-at-home orders -- to get through this pandemic in The New York Times.

Have any percolating thoughts or notice any from others? Feel free to send them our way or comment below.

We’ll continue bringing you the news you need in this crazy time. Keep sending us your questions and story ideas. We’ll get through this together.

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Research Institutions Ask for $26 Billion

Mar, 04/07/2020 - 14:50

Three national associations representing colleges and universities urged Congress on Tuesday to appropriate $26 billion in emergency funding for research universities, medical schools and teaching hospitals affected by the coronavirus epidemic.

In part, the money is needed to keep paying for graduate students, researchers and others who have had to stop their federally funded work during the pandemic.

“Much of our nation’s research workforce is effectively idled due to closed laboratories and severely limited research activities. While some are repurposing their efforts to aid in the fight against COVID-19 or attempting to analyze existing data and making other attempts at telework, for many more their federally supported research is delayed or will be set back because they are unable to access their laboratories and research facilities,” the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Association of American Universities, the Association of American Medical Colleges, and the American Council on Education wrote in a letter to congressional leaders.

In addition, the research institutions are facing the costs of ramping down their facilities, including disposing of hazardous wastes, the letter said. They will also incur more costs when they are able to resume operations.

“Given the current shutdown of many university-based and national laboratories due to the pandemic, we are deeply concerned that the people who comprise the research workforce -- graduate students, postdocs, principal investigators, and technical support staff -- and the future health and strength of the U.S. research enterprise, are at risk,” the letter said.

Congress, which passed a $2 trillion stimulus package two weeks ago, is expected to take up another package when it returns from recess later this month.

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Call for Lottery-Style College Admissions

Mar, 04/07/2020 - 13:50

Many colleges and universities have gone test optional in college admissions amid the coronavirus crisis, which also is wreaking havoc with large numbers of high school transcripts.

That combination likely means admissions staff members at selective colleges will have "extraordinary discretion" in making decisions about whom to admit, writes Rick Hess,

"Unleashed from the discipline imposed by an applicant’s grades, test scores and demonstrated accomplishment, college officials and admissions staff may be tempted to favor applicants with deep-pocketed parents, those who reflect their own personal or political biases, and those able to assemble a compelling file even when the world is in pieces (read: the privileged and connected)," he wrote in Forbes.

Hess called for an unprecedented experiment to try to level the playing field in admissions: a lottery-style process where applicants need only have a high school diploma or equivalent. It's not the first time Hess has proposed such a solution, which also has been suggested by New America.

"College admissions are a complicated, fraught challenge in the best of times. And these are not the best of times," wrote Hess. "If colleges are going to struggle to judge students fairly, in any event, it just may be time to try another approach to admissions -- and to make a virtue out of necessity."

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Outbreak Hurts Higher Ed Worldwide for Next Year, Moody's Says

Mar, 04/07/2020 - 11:11

Moody’s Investors Service expects the coronavirus outbreak to have a negative effect on higher education worldwide for the next year, it said in a report out today.

Universities will face lower student demand and lost income, according to the bond ratings agency. Public institutions in the United States are at higher risk than others around the world in part because of the potential for government funding cuts. Lower investment income could also affect U.S. universities disproportionately because investment income is a higher percentage of income for U.S. universities than it is for others around the globe.

"We expect rated universities in all of our current jurisdictions -- U.S., Canada, U.K., Australia, Singapore and Mexico -- to enroll fewer students for the next academic year than planned, due to the outbreak," said Jeanne Harrison, vice president and senior analyst at Moody’s, in a statement. "In addition, if campuses remain closed for part of the year, income from residence halls, catering, conferences and sporting events will be lower than budgeted. Endowment and gift income may also decline."

Ramifications for college and university credit quality depends on how long the outbreak lasts, Moody’s said. If campuses can reopen for the upcoming academic year, damage to demand and institutional budgets will be manageable.

Also important to watch are international student flows, which will depend largely on conditions within individual countries. Most universities Moody’s rates rely heavily on Chinese students, who are 23 percent of international students globally.

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Democrats Call for Relief for Private Loan Borrowers

Mar, 04/07/2020 - 09:26

Senator Elizabeth Warren and 11 other Democratic and Independent senators have written to student loan companies to urge them to offer help to borrowers with private student loans.

Private loan borrowers were left out of the $2.2 trillion federal stimulus bill, which allowed most other student loan borrowers to skip making payments for six months without interest. Congress also suspended involuntary collections of late payments, like garnishing wages, tax refunds and Social Security benefits.

In addition to suspending payments for an unspecified “parallel” amount of time to what other borrowers received, the senators urged the 14 companies in the letters to not seize payments, to discharge as many loans as possible of borrowers in bankruptcy or fiscal distress and to expand loan modification and affordable repayment options.

The Student Loan Servicing Alliance last week said nearly all private lenders are offering borrowers up to a three-month suspension from making payments.

The letter urges companies to cancel or discharge as many delinquent loans as possible during the crisis, especially for borrowers who have filed for bankruptcy or who are otherwise in clear financial distress that will inhibit their ability to ever fully repay their loans. It also calls for the companies to permanently provide additional, affordable repayment and loan modification options for private student loan borrowers, including options for borrowers who see long-term changes in their income.

"The outbreak of COVID-19 has resulted in an unprecedented and widespread public health and economic crisis, significantly upending life for every American," the lawmakers wrote. "For private student loan borrowers, these economic disruptions will be uniquely devastating due to private student loan borrowers' lack of critical protections, forgiveness programs, and repayment options available to federal student loan borrowers."

In addition to Warren, of Massachusetts, the letters were signed by Senators Sherrod Brown, of Ohio, Massachusetts’ Edward Markey, California’s Kamala Harris, Hawaii’s Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono, Illinois’s Richard Durbin, Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen, New Jersey’s Cory Booker, Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith, and Vermont’s Bernie Sanders.

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China Offers Help to Students in U.S., for a Price

Mar, 04/07/2020 - 08:16

The Chinese government plans to send chartered planes to help Chinese students in the U.S. return home during the coronavirus pandemic.

The catch? Students will have to pay for the flights, as well as the costs for quarantining for 14 days upon arrival in China, according to the South China Morning Post.

The government has become cautious about bringing students back home who could possibly bring the coronavirus with them.

About 400,000 Chinese students are studying in the United States. A recent online survey found that nearly 60 percent of those students want to return home, according to the Post.

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Graduate students seek time-to-degree and funding extensions during COVID-19

Mar, 04/07/2020 - 00:00

Tenure-clock stoppages came fast and furious last month to faculty members worried about how COVID-19 will throw off their career timelines. Graduate students have similar concerns about how their research has been upended and how that will impact progress toward their degrees. Yet accommodations to their program timelines and funding packages are almost nil.

Graduate students need help “figuring out where they stand,” said Bradley Sommer, president of the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students and a Ph.D. candidate in history at Carnegie Mellon University. “A lot of students right now just need basic information on what to expect.”

Students who were overseas when the public health crisis escalated, doing research or attending conferences, are in some cases stuck there, Sommer said. Stateside, many students in the natural sciences and engineering don’t have access to their labs. Their counterparts in the humanities and social sciences, meanwhile, lack access to libraries, archives and research sites. And students who collect data in K-12 schools have no idea when widespread school shutdowns will end.

Seeking Funding and Degree-Timeline Extensions

Where students’ progress toward their degrees has been significantly disrupted, will graduation dates be pushed back?

“I think that would be a comfort to students,” Sommer said, “knowing how departments plan to address this sudden halt to the normal timeline of their program.”

Another question: Where time-to-degree extensions are granted, will students be able to afford taking advantage of them, without parallel extensions to internal and external funding packages?

Gwen Chodur, director of social justice concerns for the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students and a doctoral candidate in nutritional biology at the University of California, Davis, said that the coronavirus crisis puts an already financially precarious group at greater risk.

Top among graduate students’ needs, Chodur said, is funding. Whether through extended teaching assistantships, external grants or other means, it’s about “making sure that they won’t be penalized for the impact that this has.”

Within the California system, for example, TAships are limited to six years, or 18 quarters for campuses that follow a quarter system. Graduate students on a number of campuses, along with the statewide United Auto Workers-affiliated graduate employee union, are advocating for an additional year.

International students must be covered by any such changes, these groups say, in the form of extended nonresident supplemental tuition waivers and other policies.

The California system -- which was already dealing with a growing graduate employee strike over requested cost-of-living adjustments -- is "committed to doing what it can to best support its graduate scholars as they continue their educational journeys," said Stett Holbrook, university spokesperson. At this time, the university is "not offering a systemwide adjustment to graduate-degree completion timelines because of COVID-19," he said, as degree timelines already vary by campus and program, and the current "level of uncertainty is unprecedented."

Campuses will examine what allowances "might be considered regarding normative time to degree," Holbrook said. Regarding funding support, individual campuses are also "assessing how best to mitigate the financial impact on students."

Departments Want to Help, but Their Options Are Limited

Houri Berberian, professor of history and Meghrouni Family Presidential Chair in Armenian studies at the system’s Irvine campus, said that Irvine’s School of Humanities and the university have announced certain accommodations thus far, including: an application-based emergency relief fund, various fee waivers for the spring and summer terms, and advancement-to-Ph.D.-candidacy deadline extensions through the end of summer for third-year students, without any impact to their stipends.

The department is helping students where it can, though, its ability to respond is limited. Time-to-degree stoppage and funding will need to be addressed further up the chain going forward, Berberian said, “as travel restrictions and other obstacles and insecurities continue to mount.” Students’ international and domestic research “has for the most part halted.”

Ann Waltner, professor of history at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, said that gradate students “represent the future of the profession, and it is essential that we find ways of getting them what they need to see them through this crisis.” So far, her department hopes to find summer funding for most graduate students, including by repurposing funds previously set aside for faculty travel. Preliminary oral exams and dissertation defenses are happening remotely, and scheduling is flexible.

Looking past summer, Waltner said that the department hopes to somehow be able to offer additional funding time to graduate students, “not just because of the disruptions of this spring, but because the job market has gone from dismal to dystopian.”

Hundreds of institutions already have reportedly announced some type of hiring freeze for the next six to 18 months. A few, such as the University of Oregon, have specifically included graduate assistants in these freezes.

At Minnesota, an announced hiring freeze does not apply to graduate assistants. The university also has offered supports for graduate students, including an emergency funding program and 80 hours of emergency leave for student instructors.

Absent some bigger intervention, however, the main mechanism the history department has at its disposal to help affected students to admit even smaller, future graduate cohorts than previously planned. Already, Waltner said, the program has agreed not to admit any students on the alternate list for the fall, and a “very small class” for 2021.

Lots of Anxiety, So Many Unknowns

Joseph Dennis, associate professor and director of graduate studies in history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said his department is also looking to fund as many students as possible this summer from various department sources and possible donations. Many students typically pick up off-campus work over the summer, and that has all but dried up, he said.

As for support packages, the department is studying how it can extend them to account for COVID-19-related delays. Graduate students have come home early from research trips that were essential to their dissertations, and "I expect more canceled trips in fall unless there is a major turnaround in virus control."

Dennis and others noted that graduate students -- like faculty members -- suddenly have other types of work to juggle: online course transitions, caregiving, homeschooling children and sourcing materials needed for their studies. To better understand these challenges and needs, the department last week held an online forum for graduate students.

Over all, students are anxious, Dennis said. "So we are trying to do everything we can to reduce anxiety -- working on finances, extending various deadlines, checking in on everyone."

At least part of the reason graduate student accommodations have been slow in coming is that no one has a crystal ball. It’s unclear how long the coronavirus pandemic will last and -- significantly, given that the requested accommodations will be costly -- how university budgets will be affected.

Madison chancellor Rebecca Blank has said, for example, that the university is bracing for a $100 million loss -- if things get back to normal by June. That equates to a 22 percent cut in state funding for a single year, or 3.2 percent of the total budget, according to the Wisconsin State-Journal.

Of course, the research institution model is dependent on graduate assistants to help with research and deliver instruction. But right now much research is halted, and another unanswered question is what fall undergraduate enrollment will look like.

Advocacy From Professional Organizations

Professional organizations are advocating for graduate students, too. The Modern Language Association has called for extensions on graduate student contracts and funding and on time-to-degree limits.

“Graduate students at the end of their contracts will be especially hard hit by this crisis,” reads an MLA statement on academic labor during COVID-19, “as much hiring has come to a screeching halt in both higher education and the many other industries into which Ph.D.s would normally have moved for employment.”

The American Historical Association on Monday released a similar statement urging departments and universities “to be flexible and understanding in accommodating the needs of students whose studies have been interrupted through no fault of their own.”

Institutions should consider extending the duration of funded support to graduate students “as well as offering whatever support possible to graduate students who have suffered serious financial losses relating to the impact of the pandemic,” reads the AHA statement. “Such disruptions might include incurring added expenses for interrupted travel, loss of rent, visa and other fees, and similar situations that cannot always be specified in advance but which are quite real.”

The American Sociological Association also published a statement on academic labor, but focused on professors. Teresa Ciabattari, professor of sociology at Pacific Lutheran University and the association’s director of research, professional development and academic affairs, said that universities should be “flexible, accommodating and humane in how they work with graduate students.” In so many ways, she added, “they are facing the same challenges faculty members are facing, with research being pushed online, being stuck at home, course being pushed online.”

Things graduate students need are flexibility on degree timelines, funding and emergency financial support, and additional help navigating a job market that just got more spare. Specific policies to help graduate students, however, “will really just depend on the institution.”

The Student Caucus of the Sociologists for Women in Society is currently collecting information on departmental and institutional responses to COVID-19 concerning students, to develop a list of best practices. Jax Gonzalez, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder who is involved with the project, said the "best way to support graduate students at this present moment is to help us advocate for protective measures at universities and colleges." 

Questions About External Funding

Emily Miller, associate vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities, said she hasn’t heard of policy shifts toward another year of funding or time-to-degree stoppages just yet.

“I do know there is a lot of anxiety and stress among graduate students at this time, and faculty members are working hard at this time to think of ways to support their research groups and teams and labs.”

The AAU spent many days last month working with institutions and federal agencies to answer the most urgent questions about graduate student funding, namely whether students who are paid from federal research grants (not internal assistantships) may continue to be paid that way -- even if they are not technically working in their labs during the pandemic. The answer, by and large, is yes.

Miller said that’s because graduate students working from home are -- for now -- doing work relevant to their research duties. Think: data analysis, literature reviews and manuscript preparations.

How long that work and, therefore, how long these federal funding directives will last remain to be seen.

“There’s a time horizon for which that work can be sustainable,” Miller said. “If there continues to be a need for social distancing and remote education, and if we can’t be on campus in our labs, then extensions on time clocks would need to be addressed by institutions.”

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Where is the stimulus money, colleges ask?

Mar, 04/07/2020 - 00:00

When Congress set aside about $14 billion specifically for higher education in the stimulus bill it passed two weeks ago, lawmakers had the well-intentioned goal of most of the money going to colleges and universities that serve larger shares of lower-income students.

But lawmakers also didn’t want to penalize large institutions that don't enroll as many lower-income students.

The way Congress decided to deal with the issue, however, has complicated how billions of dollars of aid will get to colleges, lobbyists representing colleges and universities worry, and it could delay the money as campus leaders are anxiously dealing with a financial hit from the coronavirus epidemic.

“We are deeply worried the institutions' money won't go out, in the best-case scenario, for a month, and in the worst-case scenario for several months,” Terry Hartle, the American Council on Education’s senior vice president for government and public affairs, said during a webinar last week for members of the Education Writers Association.

A Republican Senate committee aide, however, said colleges should stop "whining."

In an interview on Monday, the aide said, “If they were to call me two months from now, that’s one thing. But it’s 10 days [since the measure passed]. It’s whining. For God’s sake, it's 10 days old. Let’s cool it a little.”

Trying to strike a balance between different types of institutions, the stimulus bill set aside 75 percent of the money to be distributed to institutions based on the number of enrolled students who are eligible to receive Pell Grants, the federal student aid program aimed toward those with financial need.

But to help large colleges, Congress allocated the other 25 percent of the money based on enrollment numbers of full-time-equivalent students, Pell recipients or not.

The bill is heavily weighted toward institutions with large numbers of lower-income students, the aide said. "But coronavirus isn’t solely a poverty thing. It has disrupted rich and poor, the low income and the wealthy," the aide said.

The approach, however, has led to some technical questions about how the Education Department will figure out when and how much stimulus funding institutions will get, at a time when many are in urgent need of the money.

Hartle said creating a funding formula that factors in Pell and non-Pell students could delay the distribution of stimulus dollars by months.

The uncertainty arrives as the coronavirus epidemic has forced the closure of campuses, with fears of more to come, as virtually all colleges face steep revenue declines through the summer and possibly in the fall if enrollment drops. College leaders are looking for certainty on how much help is coming from the stimulus bill.

Instead of giving out the money only based on one factor, like enrollments of Pell Grant recipients, the inclusion of full-time-equivalent enrollments in the formula means the Education Department has to combine different databases. And higher education lobbyists said it's unclear if some of the needed information even exists.

And the department isn’t able to say how long the process will take.

“Most of the money will go out through a formula that doesn’t exist. The Department of Education will have to create it, and that will slow them down,” Hartle said during the webinar.

“Because of our colleges’ emphasis on serving low-income students, we initially backed the concept of distributing funds simply on the basis of relative Pell Grant enrollment, but Congress went in another direction,” said David Baime, the American Association of Community Colleges’ senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis. “The Education Department is working as fast as they can, but we haven’t been told” when the money will be available.

The Senate GOP aide, though, said the department hasn’t given congressional staff members any indications that merging the two databases is a problem. But slowed somewhat by working remotely, department officials will need to do round after round of tests to make sure billions of tax dollars are handed out accurately.

In addition, the department still has to issue guidance on questions like how the money -- half of which must be used for emergency grants to students -- can be used, the aide said. The money likely won’t be sent out until late this month or in May, the aide said, acknowledging that the department hasn’t been able to give a date.

Associations representing higher ed institutions wrote U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos last Thursday to ask for the money to be distributed quickly. “I fear this funding will be for naught for many institutions unless the department can act very quickly to make these funds available,” Hartle wrote on behalf of the associations.

The National Governors Association also wrote DeVos on Saturday, asking the department to distribute education funds in the stimulus package within two weeks. (See below graphic from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities for estimated education stabilization funds for each state.)

A department spokeswoman said last Thursday that “we understand the necessity to move quickly to get CARES Act relief funds to students and educators. An internal group of experts is working to create the most efficient process for this, and we look forward to sharing more details with the field in the coming days.”

Filling Budget Holes

Whining or not, the uncertainty also is increasing the anxiety of institutions at a difficult time when they’re taking major financial blows.

The University of Wisconsin system, for example, plans to spend $78 million on refunds to students for room and board. And Florida State University estimates it will refund $11.5 million in room and board.

In addition, Hartle said, institutions are facing the loss of revenue from summer adult education and other programs. For example, one president of an institution in a major metropolitan area told him it is losing $4 million a month in parking revenue.

Several college presidents on Monday said they’re concerned about getting emergency grants in the stimulus to students.

Anne M. Kress, president of Northern Virginia Community College, said that even before the pandemic, half of NOVA students surveyed said they were having trouble paying for food and housing.

"Because of the economic impact of the pandemic, many of these same students who were on the financial margins before have now lost their jobs. They are struggling to learn remotely with outdated laptops or even on their phones. A large number are also student parents, working doubly hard to keep their families afloat and their own children learning. Sadly, some have the virus themselves or are caring for family members who do," she said.

“Students at Northern Virginia Community College need those funds today. They cannot wait a few months,” she said in an email.

Cheryl Knauer, a spokeswoman for McDaniel College, which is located in Westminster, Md., said the college doesn’t yet have definite plans for what to do with emergency grants.

But part of the money could be used to help students get technology and online access. “With our recent needed haste to move American education online quickly, the socioeconomic digital divide coupled with the country's vast urban and rural digital deserts present the greatest challenges for students to continue with their studies,” she said.

Problems are compounded for the many two-year college students facing challenges with basic needs, Joe Schaffer, president of Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, Wyo., said in an email.

"In short, the primary reason for the urgency is to get some type of emergency financial relief in the hands of our students," he said in an email. "We are on a fast train to massive numbers of withdrawals or just disappearance of students whose lives have been impacted by the pandemic. Housing and food security are at the top of their worries and needs, primarily because so many community college students are also working (in many cases, multiple jobs and full-time)."

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Universities and their students are helping in the coronavirus response in myriad ways

Mar, 04/07/2020 - 00:00

How can we help?

That simple question has spurred a flurry of activity among students, faculty, staff and university administrators who have looked for ways to assist health-care workers in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether it’s repurposing university-owned equipment to decontaminate N95 masks, mixing hand sanitizer in chemistry labs for use by hospitals, collecting supplies of personal protective equipment -- of which there is a critical national shortage -- or babysitting health-care workers’ children, professionals in higher education and the students they serve have found all kinds of ways to help.

“We go into this field wanting to help others in one way or another,” said Brianna Engelson, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Minnesota. Engelson and other medical students founded MN COVIDSitters, a group that matches students with health-care professionals in the Twin Cities metropolitan area needing childcare, pet-sitting or general errand running. Engelson said more than 300 student volunteers are helping more than 200 health-care providers and their families. They're still seeking more volunteers to help more than 100 other families who have signed up for assistance.

“It’s tough to be on the sidelines watching your mentors and the people who have been such a critical part of your education giving so much while you’re sitting back at home feeling a little helpless,” said Engelson, who will be starting a residency program in psychiatry at the university in June. “I know I certainly did. Being so close to graduation, I’m so close to being there with them, yet here I am at home doing nothing. That’s part of it -- wanting to be involved, but also really wanting to support our mentors.”

Students and higher education professionals have found all manner of ways to get involved.

Peter Tonge, the chair of the chemistry department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, helped coordinate an effort to mix hand sanitizer after he received a message from the dean of Stony Brook's College of Arts and Sciences, a chemist, about a shortage at the university hospital. Tonge said the chemistry department used the World Health Organization's formulation for hand sanitizer, which is made up of hydrogen peroxide, glycerol and either ethanol or Isopropyl alcohol -- all raw materials that faculty members had in their labs.

“I created a Google spreadsheet and sent it to faculty. In a couple of hours, they filled in a spreadsheet with the location and amount of each of these reagents,” Tonge said. “We got a cart, myself and two other people went through building collecting all the reagents, took it down to our general chemistry lab, and a postdoctoral associate and a research scientist mixed up the reagents.” By 5 p.m. the same day he’d received the email, he said they’d made 17 gallons.

“That basically exhausted all of our supplies in the building, so we placed an order for another 80 gallons of ethanol, and today we made another 80 gallons of hand sanitizer,” Tonge said Friday.

In a similar effort, the Veterinary Diagnostic Lab at Oregon State University manufactured a fluid needed to transport COVID-19 test swabs in a sterile environment with the materials the lab had on hand. The fluid, known as viral transport medium, protects the virus's genetic material until the swab can be tested. Justin Sanders, an assistant professor at Oregon State's Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine, said the lab's scientist initially made three liters of the solution, enough for 1,000 tests, after learning of a shortage from an infectious disease doctor at the Corvallis, Ore.-based Samaritan Health Services. Sanders said the veterinary college has fielded requests for the solution from other hospitals after their efforts were publicized.

Universities, including Oregon State, have also been collecting supplies of personal protective equipment -- including masks, gloves and gowns -- from university labs to donate to hospitals. Oregon State collected 10 pallets of PPE, including an estimated 200,000 pairs of gloves and approximately 8,000 face masks, to donate to county emergency management centers.

“We focused on laboratories, kitchen areas, custodial -- anybody that had personal protective equipment,” said Mike Bamberger, the emergency preparedness manager at Oregon State University. “We collected it up and put in a pile. Then on the main campuses we had people go around and collect it and palletize it and take it over to the local county for distribution.”

San Jacinto College, a community college in Texas, also organized a PPE donation drive, collecting supplies from its various health-science programs.

“We work with all of our sister agencies, Harris County Emergency Management, Harris County Public Health -- we reached out to them and asked what we could do to help, and they gave us their high-need items,” said Ali Shah, the college’s emergency manager. Shah said the college has also collected specimen bags needed by local hospitals and transferred two ventilators owned by its respiratory therapy program to a local hospital. San Jacinto has also partnered with other Houston-area colleges to use 3-D printers to manufacture a component of protective face shields for health-care workers.

Faculty members and students at multiple universities -- including but not limited to Duke University, in North Carolina; Rowan University, in New Jersey; SUNY Stony Brook; and the Universities of Montevallo, in Alabama; and South Carolina -- have mobilized to manufacture masks or face shields using 3-D printers.

Some universities, such as Duke and the University of Nebraska Medical Center, are using different technologies to decontaminate N95 masks, which are in scarce supply.

Michigan State University has repurposed a spiral oven in its Food Processing and Innovation Center -- which is typically used by food companies to test new recipes -- to decontaminate masks using heat. Michigan State has partnered with a local hospital provider, Sparrow Health System, on the effort.

“We think this can have a significant impact for our health-care providers in the Lansing region,” said Jeffrey W. Dwyer, the director of MSU Extension and senior associate dean of outreach and engagement for the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “We will simultaneously be able to work with others around the state and even the country to share our protocol with them and work with them to adapt it.”

A group of scientific professionals, engineers and clinicians has organized a volunteer consortium, N95DECON, to review and publish scientific information on mask decontamination strategies.

“We came together and did what scientists do best -- read available literature, synthesize information, evaluate data and debate vigorously. Our goal is to better equip hospitals and health-care personnel in these challenging times with concise, organized, data-backed information on this important issue,” said Hana El-Samad, an organizer of the consortium and the Kuo Family Endowed Professor and vice chair of the department of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco.

El-Samad emphasized that decontamination is a substitute for what would be the best solution -- an increased supply of PPE. But she said the need for decontamination among health-care providers is great.

“It is true that many institutions and medical centers are taking a courageous lead in setting up methods and protocols for decontamination,” El-Samad said. "But there are over 6,000 hospitals in the U.S. alone, plus many other settings with professional users of N95 masks in the U.S. and abroad. Only a handful have adopted any decontamination strategies to date, but a growing number are realizing it might be a decision they need to make in the near future.”

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Professor discusses new book on his son's battle with schizophrenia

Mar, 04/07/2020 - 00:00

W. J. T. Mitchell is the Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor of English and Art History at the University of Chicago. But his new book, Mental Traveler: A Father, a Son and a Journey Through Schizophrenia (University of Chicago Press) comes out of a very personal experience. His son, Gabriel, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 21 and ended his own life 18 years later. Mitchell's memoir tells the story of how his family hoped and coped.

He responded to questions via email.

Q: Can you share the timeline of your son's diagnosis and death?

A: Gabe showed early signs of a thought disorder in the fall of 1991. He was 18 years old and a freshman at New York University. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the fall of 1994, when he was hospitalized after a violent psychotic break and was medicated for the first time. He moved from the hospital to a halfway house for a few weeks while we found a residential facility for him. He moved into Humboldt House, a residence operated by the Thresholds agency, in the winter of 1995, and lived there for about eight years.

In 2004 he found Section 8 subsidized housing in Marina City [in Chicago], where he lived until his death in 2012. In that period he worked with Thresholds in a variety of educational and occupational programs. He took classes in filmmaking at Columbia College, attended film classes at the University of Chicago’s downtown extension program and participated in a variety of ventures in music and theater. He also started writing screenplays and experimenting with drawing, painting, calligraphy and geometric diagrams. From 2002 to 2011 he worked part-time (20 hours per week on average) at the Jewel Food chain in the produce department, starting in the Uptown store and moving later to the flagship store in Chicago’s River North area.

He created his own website,, wrote three screenplays and a graphic novel, began learning the skills of film editing, and made a number of films, including a feature-length film entitled Philosomentary. He continued taking film classes, taught some classes in screenwriting and in 2006 joined a group of University of Chicago film scholars who were studying Jean-Luc Godard’s nine-hour Histoire(s) du cinema in minute detail. Around 2010 he began to conceive of a long film that would document the “Histoire(s) de la folie,” or history of madness, and started work on a pilot film entitled Crazy Talk. He asked me to serve as the image researcher for the film, tasked with compiling the vast archive of representations of insanity in film, theater, literature and beyond. As a starting point, in the winter of 2011 I organized a University of Chicago seminar entitled Seeing Madness: Insanity, Media and Visual Culture, which I taught along with my colleagues Francoise Meltzer, a comparative literature scholar, and her husband, Bernard Rubin, a psychoanalyst and psychiatrist. Gabriel attended this seminar, debuting the pilot film for his magnum opus and giving a lecture about it after the screening. He continued to see a talk therapist, a psychiatrist and a social worker during this period and continued to work at the Jewel Food store.

In the fall of 2011, he asked for a leave from work so that he could go back to film school at Columbia College full-time. In the winter of 2012, he struggled to deal with incompletes and had to suspend his enrollment at Columbia. On June 24, 2012, he took his own life by jumping from the 59th floor of Marina City.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

A: At first, I had no intention of writing a memoir. I turned the research into the history of madness that I had begun for Gabe’s [film] into a series of essays on various aspects of the challenge he had posed to me. I gathered the essays in a completed book manuscript, entitled Seeing Through Madness that was submitted to University of Chicago Press in 2017, where it was accepted for publication. As I worked on the final manuscript, however, the biographical introduction began to grow out of control, and I came to realize that it needed to be a separate book. I decided to suspend work on Seeing Through Madness and began work on Mental Traveler, which took about three years and numerous rewrites to finish.

Q: What did you know about schizophrenia prior to your son's diagnosis?

A: Very little, really. I knew that it was the scariest form of mental illness defined by psychiatry, that it had an enormous range of symptoms, was thought to be incurable and only partially manageable with medication. I knew that it carried the most damaging stigma of all the mental disorders. After 20 years of living with it and helping Gabe manage it, I continue to wonder whether the label names anything very definite. Gabriel vacillated between accepting the diagnosis and cooperating with his doctors, on the one hand, and denying it on the other, trying to replace it with PTSD and recovered memories of a trauma that no one else could remember. He also became increasingly militant about affirming mental illness as a political identity and a minority status that combines the roles of the disabled with the outsider artist.

Q: You include in the book a number of drawings Gabriel made. What do they show?

A: The drawings provide a window into his mental and social life. The drawings for his music video, “Desolation Row,” portray him as an Dylanesque outsider artist and skateboarder witnessing homelessness, addiction and mental illness in the gang-dominated neighborhood of Humboldt Park, where he lived from 1995 to 2004. In his diagrams, he presents himself as cosmologist, producing a Cartesian “grid theory” (also realized in a short film by that title) that excludes all negative spaces and numbers. Grid theory traces the human impulse to design abstract graphic models from the ancient world to the present. Gabe regarded his grid as a model for everything from the structure of the DNA molecule to the shape of the universe, to the form of a healthy mental life. He began designing a three-dimensional sculptural version of his grid in an “infinite cube,” constructed out of mirrored glass around a wire matrix containing 1,000 omnidirectional LED lights. After his death, this design was realized as a gift by the British sculptor Antony Gormley and now is scheduled to be a permanent public installation at the University of Chicago’s Law School.

Q: How did you and Gabriel navigate medical treatment for him?

A: Navigating the world of mental health was always difficult. He had excellent social workers who helped him get and hold a job and regularize his life, but he never found a talk therapist who could establish a strong relationship with him. Gabe could quickly go from compliance, taking his meds, to going off the medication and self-medicating with alcohol, especially in the first eight years of the illness. In the last 10 years of his life, he managed to stay sober and increased his productivity as an artist and filmmaker. We think that his suicide might have been triggered by his reducing his meds in order to sharpen his creative talents, which were increasingly in demand from fellow artists. In the final months of his life, he made a film about the madness of the '60s, a montage of historical images with the voiceover of Bill Ayers reading from his memoir, Fugitive Days. In his final weeks, he attended a conference of comic artists including Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, R. Crumb and Joe Sacco, where the borders between mental disorders and graphic memoirs seemed very porous indeed.

Q: What is the message you hope your book will have?

A: I find it hard to boil it down to a single message. I’m sure I wrote it as a way of mourning Gabriel and trying to keep him alive. The narrative arc of the book traces a transformation of our relationship and the beginning of a strange role reversal. The longer he survived schizophrenia, the more I came to admire his courage and energy in fighting the illness. At some point, I began to feel not just love and sympathy for my sick son, but wonder at his determination to follow his own creative path while watching his friends move on to marriage and career.

I began to see his “disability” as something he was engaged in conquering and transforming into an ability, and although he saw himself as an outsider artist, he steadfastly shot his films with a firm conviction that he would some day walk the red carpet at the Academy Awards. (Gabe loved to portray himself as a superhero “capable of drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and getting kicked out of prestigious universities at the same time,” and his favorite Marvel superheroes were all mental cases: e.g., Batman: depression; Wolverine: misanthropy; Dark Phoenix: schizophrenia.)

In some strange way that I have still not figured out, I began to think of him as my consigliere, my best friend, and as my caregiver in the not-too-distant future. As for “messages” for other people, there are dozens. I wanted people to see how a family copes with mental illness, how it can drive them apart or pull them together -- sometimes both. The book is not just about the two of us: Gabe’s mother, his sister and a large extended family of close friends are crucial to the story. I wanted to show the complexity of caregiving, the compromises and ingenuity it demands.

One chapter of the book is called “On the Immoral Career of the Care Giver,” an echo of Erving Goffman’s “The Moral Career of the Mental Patient.” It tries to show the double binds that afflict a family that decides to consign one its members to the mental health system, how it may be necessary to lie to a loved one and why they might come to see their caregivers as persecutors and saviors at the same time. I wanted to show how a father can fail his son while trying to do his best, and succeed now and then in spite of himself. I wanted to give mental illness a human face and show how close it is to whatever it is we mean by “normality.” I wanted to show that madness can be quite compatible with wit, humor and intelligence, and that crazy people are not crazy all the time. I increasingly felt drawn into Gabe’s world, and one of the chapters in the Seeing Through Madness sequel to this memoir is entitled “Method, Madness, Montage,” a reflection on the whole crazy attempt to see and show the totality of mental disorders.

I’m firmly convinced that any firm lines between madness and sanity can only be drawn in the shifting sands of culture, social norms, legal institutions and medical knowledge. No one gets through a human life without experiencing some form of madness, directly or indirectly. It is endemic to our species, as philosophers from Plato to Erasmus (The Praise of Folly) to R. D. Laing have shown. Laing regarded so-called schizophrenics as akin to 17th-century seafarers, most of whom never returned to tell about their adventures. Gabe was among the few who came back and tried to tell his story. “On Gifted Schizophrenia” will be one of the chapters of Seeing Through Madness, and it will link Gabe’s story to figures like John Nash, Judge Schreber, Aby Warburg, Elyn Saks and William Blake.

We all go crazy, whether from love, trauma, neglect or brain chemistry. Anyone can be driven insane, and the American prison system is a great engine for the production of mental disorders, while our profit-driven health-care system is at best a mediocre palliative with its emphasis on drugs rather than talk therapy and its tendency to transform diagnostic labels into fatal stigmas. Madness is an essential part of what it means to be human. It is a question of degree of mental suffering and disorder, rather than kind. We experienced some part of this world, up close and personal, and I wanted to convey that as honestly as I could.

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Roundup: Pay cuts, sick time and a raccoon on a leash

Mar, 04/07/2020 - 00:00

One day down, a million more to go.

Public health officials in some areas of the country are predicting the infection rate for the novel coronavirus won't peak until midsummer. Meanwhile, a tiger at the Bronx Zoo has tested positive for COVID-19, as has the Tiger King himself.

To brighten your day a little, this guy is rating homemade masks on Twitter. There are some … creative solutions.

Need a non-coronavirus-related diversion? Check out this guy, spotted in Boulder, Colo., taking his leashed raccoon out for a walk.

im not sure what’s happening here, but someone in #boulder has leashed up a raccoon and is taking it on a walk because why not

h/t @Matt_Badman

— Austin Braun (@AustinOnSocial) April 6, 2020

Now on to the news.

Fitch Ratings predicts the funds from the recently passed coronavirus relief bill won't be enough to offset the pain colleges and universities are feeling. Moody's Investors Services said the same last week.

As this moment in time unfolds, the American Historical Association and its peer organizations are asking institutions that employ historians to be flexible and humane, as historians are crucial to have around in a time of crisis.

University presidents and athletics administrators are starting to take pay cuts as the pandemic rattles the economy. They aren't alone; the chairman of Kaplan Inc., the for-profit corporation educational services provider, is taking a 50 percent cut.

Florida's college savings program is deferring payments into the program for the next few months.

Here’s a quick roundup of our latest stories, in case you’ve fallen a bit behind (we don't blame you):

What are colleges doing to get students to enroll next semester? Easing requirements and running events online, Scott Jaschik reports.

Greta Anderson reports on how the needs of disabled students may be overlooked during this time, according to advocates.

Most colleges have closed down campuses, and now they're scrambling to come up with refund plans, Emma Whitford reports.

Colleges are preparing contingency plans in case faculty members fall ill or die as the global health pandemic continues, writes Lilah Burke.

News from elsewhere

Bloomberg Government wrote about how higher education efforts in prisons are adjusting to the pandemic.

What will happen to college sports? Education Dive looks ahead to football season.

The pandemic has shed light on how some students live in different worlds, The New York Times reports.

Percolating Thoughts

Two higher ed experts lay out four changes to federal student aid policies that could help low-income students, especially as the economic ramifications of the pandemic grow more dire.

Researchers at the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research wrote about how the coronavirus relief act leaves out students with private loans.

The owner of a test prep company makes the case to move the SAT and the ACT online.

Have any percolating thoughts or notice any from others? Feel free to send them our way or comment below.

We’ll continue bringing you the news you need during these unsettling times. Keep sending us your questions and story ideas. We’ll get through this together.

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Fitch Predicts Stimulus Won't Match Coronavirus Costs for Colleges

Lun, 04/06/2020 - 12:58

Another bond ratings agency is predicting that the recently signed federal stimulus package will not provide enough relief to colleges and universities to offset the combination of revenue being lost and expenses that are increasing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The higher education sector is experiencing prorated declines in some student fees along with an increase in operating expenses driven in part by the shift to online learning, Fitch Ratings said in a note released today. That puts the most pressure on institutions with relatively less liquidity, low margins and difficulty balancing their budgets, as well as residential colleges that rely heavily on revenue from student fees.

“Many institutions are evaluating expense reduction actions, including support-staff layoffs or furloughs,” Fitch said in its note. “Higher-rated institutions with strong financial cushions should have sufficient resources to cover budget gaps at least through the end of the 2020 fiscal year.”

Fitch also provides estimates on how $14.3 billion that the stimulus package dedicated to colleges and universities could translate on the ground. A tenth of the funding is to be divided between historically black colleges and universities, as well as grants for small institutions that have unmet needs related to the coronavirus. Three-quarters of the remaining 90 percent is to be distributed based on enrollment of full-time students receiving Pell Grants, with leftover money to be distributed based on share of enrollment not receiving Pell Grants.

If the formula is applied uniformly across eligible students using 2018-19 enrollment data, Fitch estimates that institutions would receive about $1,400 per Pell student and $200 per non-Pell student.

Larger institutions, which are likely to have more resources on hand, are likely to receive the most aid, according to the ratings agency. Small private colleges, which have less financial wiggle room, may need more federal assistance.

“Even with funds earmarked specifically for small institutions with unmet coronavirus-related financial needs, the demand for, and method of, disbursement for these funds is yet unknown and may leave some smaller institutions to face heightened financial strain and rating pressure,” Fitch’s note said.

Generally, Fitch anticipates financial margins tightening across the sector.

The findings on coronavirus costs exceeding new revenue in the stimulus are similar to conclusions reached by Moody’s Investors service last week.

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Historians and COVID-19

Lun, 04/06/2020 - 10:38

The American Historical Association and several peer organizations in a new statement urge institutions that employ historians to be flexible and humane during COVID-19. The statement calls for clarity regarding any changes to faculty review, reappointment and tenure processes, and for only optional delays to individual personnel actions, such as tenure clocks. Non-tenure-track faculty members should be compensated for previously contracted spring, summer and fall course offerings, and universities should consider "extending the duration of funded support to graduate students as well as offering whatever support possible to graduate students who have suffered serious financial losses relating to the impact of the pandemic." Libraries, museums and archives should similarly be as flexible as possible, according to the AHA.

"Everything has a history and historians are especially well suited to explain social and cultural challenges met in crisis situations, epidemics and pandemics among them," the statement says. "Like our colleagues in related disciplines, historians can also explore the challenges public health authorities, governments and nonprofit institutions face in mediating possible conflicts between individual rights and the good of the greater society."

The document concludes, "When a neighbor asks, 'Is it worth sacrificing the economy for a few hundred thousand lives,' it's time for a humanist to enter the discussion. This important, and difficult, conversation too has a history."

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Payments Deferred for Florida College Savings Program

Lun, 04/06/2020 - 10:32

Parents in Florida who had signed up for prepaid plans to save for college will get some extra time before starting monthly payments.

The Florida Prepaid College Board announced today that it is deferring payments until July to help families through the economic and global health crisis caused by the novel coronavirus, according to a news release.

Prepaid plans let parents start saving for a child's college education while also locking in future costs. Plans start at $44 per month for newborns, which is the lowest minimum amount in five years.

New customers who buy a plan during what's left of the open enrollment period will have the $50 application fee waived. Their payments won't start until July.

Current customers will have their April, May and June payments deferred, unless they choose to continue payments. Payment schedules will be extended by three months.

“As uncertain as these times are, we encourage Florida families to take comfort in knowing that Prepaid College Plans offer certainty and security for your college savings,” Kevin Thompson, executive director of Florida Prepaid, said in the news release. “All Prepaid College Plans are guaranteed by the State of Florida, ensuring families can never lose their investment.”

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Pay Cuts for University Presidents, Coaches

Lun, 04/06/2020 - 08:48

University presidents and athletic administrators are among those who have begun taking pay cuts amid the pandemic and recession.

Michael Schill, president of the University of Oregon, on Friday announced a temporary reduction of 12 percent to his pay, The Register-Guard reported. The university's vice presidents and athletic director will have their pay cut by 10 percent. The reductions will be in place for six months but may be extended.

“We are almost certainly all going to have to make sacrifices,” Schill said.

Athletic department coaches and other staff members at Iowa State University collectively will take $3 million in pay reductions, according to the Des Moines Register. The pay cuts are due in part to lost revenue from canceled basketball tournaments, Iowa State said.

The provost and president at Stanford University will take 20 percent pay cuts, according to Palo Alto's The Daily Post. Other senior administrators at Stanford will see their pay slashed by 5 to 10 percent.

Andrew Rosen, the chairman of Kaplan Inc., which partners with Purdue University on the online Purdue University Global, has elected to take a 50 percent pay cut, Kaplan's holding company said in a corporate filing.

Carol Folt, who became the University of Southern California's president last year, will take a 20 percent cut, the Los Angeles Times reported. Just before the pandemic hit, the university closed on its purchase of an $8.6 million presidential residence for Folt in Santa Monica.

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Colleges plan for unprecedented wave of illness among faculty members

Lun, 04/06/2020 - 00:00

"The absenteeism of professors is not a new issue," said Chuck Staben, former president of the University of Idaho and current professor there. "What is a new issue is the scale of what we're potentially facing."

In the face of rising coronavirus cases, the scale of professor absenteeism could be much larger than anything colleges have seen in recent decades.

The devil's arithmetic isn't hard to follow. Some models have predicted over 40 percent of the American public will get COVID-19. Nineteen percent of cases need to be hospitalized, and 6 percent need intensive care. The White House predicts now 100,000 to 240,000 deaths, at best, from the new coronavirus. At least four prominent faculty members already have passed away.

Some academic leaders have begun to ask how to prepare for what seems increasingly inevitable. What happens if professors, on a never-before-seen scale, get too sick to teach? What happens if they die?

Last week Feng Sheng Hu, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, sent a memo to faculty members in his college.

"In the coming weeks, it is likely that more cases will emerge in our campus community and our college," Hu said. "For [students'] benefit, it is important that we do everything we can to maintain course continuity now that instruction has moved online for the rest of the semester. With that in mind, we ask you to make contingency plans for how your classes will continue, should you become unavailable to teach for any reason."

Hu suggested arranging for a colleague to step in or planning alternative activities.

After English professor Curtis Perry tweeted about getting the memo, other faculty from institutions in the U.S., Canada and New Zealand chimed in that they had received similar letters, or had sent them out to their teams.

Perry and many others bristled at the requests, both at their euphemistic language along with the idea that professors facing death should be responsible for keeping business running.

"You get an A! And you get an A!" someone joked in the replies.

"I'm dead," another said. "My contract has for sure ended."

Perry clarified that regardless of the tone of the request, he objected to the idea that he could even complete it.

"It is of course reasonable to be concerned about the illness or death of faculty -- I'm just not sure it makes sense to ask faculty themselves to take the lead in setting up contingencies without providing guidelines concerning budgetary support," he said via email. "Am I supposed to ask a grad student to add my class to their portfolio without compensation?"

Even disregarding budgetary concerns, it may be impossible to find instructors who can step in for niche or upper-level courses.

The University of Illinois emphasized that considering the impact of illness is a normal part of business.

"Contingencies for replacement instruction are a standard consideration in our academic operations during a normal semester where face-to-face instruction accounts for the majority of our course delivery," said a university spokesperson via email. "But we realize that some of our standard practices for replacement instruction may not translate when faculty and students are not physically in the same place."

Hu said he was simply asking everyone to do their best in difficult circumstances. "There are various reasons that an instructor may not be able to teach, including an illness and family obligations," he said via email. "We are not telling instructors what specific contingency plans they should make. We want them to do whatever they feel is best for their students and their courses."

Staben, who now teaches biology, cited a few potential options for how to proceed when a professor can't teach, though none are ideal.

There's the substitute model, the class could be frozen or suspended, or students could be given an "instructor incomplete" similar to the incomplete grade they would receive if students were unable to finish a course.

But freezing a course or giving an instructor incomplete may run afoul of current financial aid rules, Staben said. A substitute model could put an incredible burden on a few people in a small department. One other option would be to move a class to asynchronous instruction, but few professors have those resources lined up.

Staben said most institutions are unprepared for a potential crisis, pointing out that while the best continuity of operations plan he's seen, from the University of Washington, asks planners to prepare for staff absenteeism of 25 percent, the college's public academic continuity plan doesn't make the same consideration for faculty.

"If the University of Washington has 10 plumbers and they need to make sure that the plumbing system stays in operation, then the eight plumbers who are left can do that," he said. "But not necessarily in the nuclear physics department."

John Lombardi, former leader at several universities and the author of How Universities Work, said that whether this planning is really necessary still remains to be seen.

"Probably useful to think about this, but probably not useful to construct complicated alternative contingencies covering every imaginable sequence of illness, whether related to the virus or not," he said via email. "Unless we imagine a massive collapse of the university workforce, it's likely best to try and deal with these issues within the context of normal sick leave, normal reallocation of work and similar adjustments."

Higher ed would do well, he said, to spend its time on the problems it's already facing.

Staben said he personally is unprepared for his class to go on without him. Regardless, he feels this is an issue faculty need to grapple with.

"We're responsible for the quality of educational outcomes. We're responsible for the curriculum. We should want to be engaged in ensuring successful completion of that curriculum," he said. "It's not about grades so much as what those students were supposed to learn."

One thing is for certain. At some institutions, the plans are being laid. One can only hope they'll never be needed.

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As colleges announce room and board refund plans, students are asking for more

Lun, 04/06/2020 - 00:00

It’s been nearly a month since colleges began to close their residence halls in response to the new coronavirus outbreak, but many are still figuring out exactly how to address room and board refunds.

Some colleges, such as Smith College, Harvard University and Amherst College, announced almost immediately that students would receive prorated room and board refunds. Many others have come up with partial refund plans in the following weeks, which have been met with praise by some students and with lawsuits and petitions by others.

Refund decisions are ever changing. This was apparent at the University of Minnesota Board of Regents meeting Friday, when the board voted 8 to 4 to approve a new student fee refund plan.

Previously, the university system had offered a $1,200 room and board credit for students on the Twin Cities campus and a $1,000 credit for students on all other UM campuses. This plan would have cost the university system $12.6 million in lost revenue.

The new plan, created in light of Minnesota governor Tim Walz’s stay-at-home declaration issued March 25, would provide prorated refunds for students on all six University of Minnesota campuses for room and board fees, student activities fees, and parking fees, if applicable. The new plan would cost the university system $27.8 million, more than double the original plan.

That’s a significant figure, even for a state system like the University of Minnesota, according to Craig Goebel, principal at Art & Science Group. He pointed to a recent report that the University of Wisconsin system is estimating a $100 million loss due to the coronavirus outbreak. The entire UW system expects to spend $78 million on room and board refunds. Elsewhere, Clemson University announced it faces a $20 million loss, $15 million of which will be for refunds. The University of Maine system has processed $12.8 million in room and board refunds as of March 31.

The University of Minnesota Board of Regents vote follows a petition calling on the University of Minnesota Twin Cities administration to increase refunds to students from the initial $1,200 to “at least $2,500.” It has gathered more than 500 signatures.

“The University of Minnesota instructed students to stay home after spring break due to this pandemic but isn’t compensating students the right amount for their losses,” the petition reads. "This petition is aimed to push administration to give students their rightful compensation of at least 2500 dollars."

The plan approved Friday would refund the “most common” student -- meaning a student who chose the most common options for housing, dining plans and the like -- $2,364, according to Julie Tonneson, senior vice president of finance and operations at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. Actual refund amounts will vary by student.

Students in Arizona have also been leaning on their universities to pay them back for services not rendered -- but instead of just petitions, they took the universities to court.

Students have filed a class action lawsuit against the Arizona Board of Regents in an attempt to receive prorated room and board and student fees refunds from three universities -- University of Arizona, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University -- after they moved classes online.

The sued for breach of contract -- a common class action claim, according to Kent Schmidt, a lawyer at international law firm Dorsey & Whitney who is keeping a running blog of coronavirus-related class action suits.

“[Arizona Board of Regents]’s performance under the contracts is not excused because of COVID-19 and the housing agreements provide no such terms excusing performance given nationwide pandemics,” the complaint reads.

The University of Arizona is offering students a choice between a 10 percent refund at the end of the semester and a 20 percent credit to be added to their account next year. Arizona State University will offer a $1,500 nonrefundable credit. Northern Arizona University announced Friday it would offer a 25 percent credit. But the students say it’s not enough.

“The students’ claim is pretty sympathetic. This is not an insignificant part of the money you pay to go to college,” Schmidt said.

The lawyer went on to explain the situation many colleges find themselves in.

"The problem is that a significant part of that money also goes to pay salaries of the people there working in the cafeterias and people that are doing various other jobs relating to the room and board," he said. "The question becomes: Is the university caught in the middle? Do they have to refund the money to the students, or are they under pressure to keep paying the employees?"

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Remote learning shift leaves students with disabilities behind

Lun, 04/06/2020 - 00:00

In the quick shift by colleges from in-person to online instruction in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the needs of students with disabilities can sometimes be overlooked.

Students who are deaf or hard of hearing, have low vision or are blind, those with learning disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or a physical disability that requires use of a computer keyboard instead of a mouse, students with mental illnesses or various other challenges, have been put on the backburner “en masse,” as instructors scramble to transfer two months' worth of teaching content to a digital format, said Cyndi Wiley, digital accessibility coordinator for Iowa State University’s Information Technology Services.

Wiley said although some faculty members may have discussed digital accessibility in the past, they might not be aware of the importance of ensuring it for all students and may not understand that it goes beyond making special accommodations for individual students that specifically request it. Some faculty members might just be overwhelmed by the pressure to rapidly convert to online classes and overlook accessibility, Wiley said. She said institutions can and should "do better" by making investments in software that continuously provides alternative, accessible material formats for students with any disabilities.

“I would love to live in a world where we didn’t have to make accommodations because all our materials are just accessible,” Wiley said. “If we are not at an enterprise level looking at those resources and creating budget lines, we’re at the situation we’re in now. We have some how-to resources and tips, but faculty are running all over the place and trying to keep up with students.”

The National Foundation for the Blind has been contacted by college students facing problems after complete shifts to remote learning by their respective institutions, said Chris Danielsen, director of public relations for the foundation. The primary issue for blind students is learning materials not being compatible with screen readers, which read and navigate course documents and sometimes transcribe them into Braille, he said.

“What we worry about now is that in the rush to move everything online in light of COVID-19, universities are paying even less attention to whether it’s accessible or not,” Danielsen said.

Tiffany Anderson, a blind student in her final semester at Johnston Community College in Smithfield, N.C., said the move to online learning has slowed her down. When her Spanish conversation class was in person, Anderson could listen to readings and follow along, but a digital textbook for the course is not available in an online format compatible with her screen reader, and her professor has been relying on that textbook more for assignments, she said.

“It’s stressful, because you feel like you’re falling behind,” Anderson said.

Wiley said students who are dyslexic, on the autism spectrum or who have a learning disability that requires text be read to them can also run into problems when screen readers process documents that are images instead of text. Images also cannot be navigated by students with physical disabilities who only use computer keyboards, not mouses, to go through documents, she said.

Deaf and hard-of-hearing students may also face new challenges, said Howard Rosenblum, CEO of the National Association of the Deaf.

Live teaching formats over the internet may not provide them with American Sign Language interpreters or real-time captioning -- transcriptions of speech produced by a person, not computer-generated -- they may have had in in-person classes. If students had these services provided in the classroom, they should be duplicated for remote learning, Rosenblum said in an email. Colleges should not look to automated speech recognition, or ASR, software for live video formats, such as what is provided as a default for the Zoom, WebEx and Google Hangout conferencing platforms, he said.

“Such captioning is generally subpar and would be a disservice to those who rely on accurate captioning to understand and follow their college classes,” Rosenblum said. “We challenge any claim of accuracy measurements of ASR given that there is absolutely no valid metric to assess the accuracy of captioning at this time.”

Captioning accuracy declines when the speaker's native language is not English or if they have a speech impediment, when live video has background noise or complex terminology or bad internet connections, Rosenblum said. Wiley estimated that the ASR used in videoconferencing platforms is 85 to 90 percent accurate, when the aim should be 99 percent accuracy. The best-case scenario would be for colleges to have a human remote live captioner, but academic departments often don’t have the budget to pay for such services, especially now with the financial impact of making major adjustments in response to the public health crisis, Wiley said.

The pandemic is forcing institutions “to confront who is expendable,” said Mary Vargas, a partner at the firm Stein & Vargas LLP, who focuses on disability discrimination and is a former attorney with the NAD. Accessibility issues occurring now will impact the deaf community later, as deaf and hard-of-hearing students studying health care or medicine will become critical providers who can communicate effectively with other deaf and hard-of-hearing people, she said.

“For students in that field to be locked out of education is just devastating,” Vargas said. “It’s devastating to their career path and devastating to the rest of us who need immediate health-care access.”

People who have not paid attention to accessibility are now being forced to in the middle of a crisis, said Lainey Feingold, a disability rights attorney who works on digital accessibility. From a legal standpoint, the technology should always be usable for every student, and accommodations are required by law, unless it’s an “undue burden,” she said. But providing an equal education to students with disabilities should be more than just a “checklist” to ensure institutions are compliant with federal requirements, Feingold said.

Accessibility should be a “state of mind,” and that has not historically been the case in higher education, said Marion Quirici, a disability studies professor at Duke University who advises the Duke Disability Alliance, a student group that advocates for visibility and accessibility for students with disabilities. Quirici is concerned not only for the students who have disclosed disabilities previously to their professors, or who have very apparent physical disabilities, but those who have not asked for accommodations, especially for unpredictable learning or mental health disabilities, she said.

“Accommodation is first -- you have to prove you have a disability,” Quirici said. “You go through this process of documentation, then decide which accommodation would help you get through this course … The students who are struggling the most are students whose disabilities are not already on the books.”

The move to remote learning has been particularly difficult for Sydney Aquilina, a Duke student who has ADHD and is a member of the DDA. Attending classes remotely while living in a household with seven others is challenging, she said in an email. It’s hard to find quiet space to be productive.

“Not being in-person in and of itself makes it harder to concentrate, and I feel less free to ask the questions that my mind will get hung up on, which makes it even more difficult to focus on what I’m supposed to,” Aquilina said. “Conversation helps me organize and process my thoughts, so the reduction of social interaction makes it more difficult for me to articulate my thoughts and ideas on assignments.”

Online learning, when done in an accessible way, can be better for some students with disabilities, such as those who struggle to navigate campus because they have a physical disability, Quirici said. What the coronavirus pandemic has revealed, though, is that requests by students with disabilities to learn remotely in the past -- which were sometimes rejected at many universities -- are suddenly possible on a broad scale, Quirici said.

This is the “irony of this current crisis,” Deanna Ferrante, a December graduate of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, wrote in an article about the pandemic. Ferrante founded the Alliance Against Ableism at UMass Amherst and said she has a learning disability that affects her reading comprehension and memory.

“In the past, students who need class content to be moved online have faced opposition from administration claiming that the transition would be too expensive, take too much time, and require too much extra training for educators,” Ferrante wrote. “It is painful to me and many others in the disability community that as soon as non-disabled people require the use of online classes to complete their education, the whole world scrambles to get everything running in a mere week.”

Sometimes there’s a reluctance from educators to provide accommodations because they're skeptical of a legitimate need that is not obviously visible, when the attitude should be “flexibility and understanding,” Quirici said. There is a lesson to learn from people with disabilities who are “coming forward as leaders during this transition” and speaking about inequities that persist in higher education, not just online, but in person, Quirici said.

“That flexibility and approachability should be built into our mission as teachers,” she said. “I hope that one silver lining of this catastrophe is that this is all possible and it can be incorporated into face-to-face environments.”

Ferrante said accessibility should not be framed as "guidelines" or "suggestions" for instructors but as a top-down mandate from university administrators.

"It’s very disheartening that now all of this immediacy is in place because of something’s that’s bigger than all of us," Ferrante said. "Maybe it will show universities and administrators the importance of this."

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Roundup: Videoconferencing woes and a new coffee craze

Lun, 04/06/2020 - 00:00

What day is it again? That’s right, Monday!

As you gear up for another workweek from home, why not consider whipping up some tasty Dalgona coffee?

This chilled beverage went viral (not that kind) last week and is super simple to make. All you need is a whisk and some coffee, sugar and milk.

Give it a try and sip as you skim the rest of this newsletter. We’ll wait.

Here’s the tea on what’s in the news.

The National Governors Association wrote to the U.S. Department of Education on Friday, asking the department to distribute the $30 billion in education funds from the federal stimulus bill as quickly as possible and with few restrictions on how the money should be spent. Higher education institutions are slated to receive $14 billion.

Fearing a loss of liquidity, the University of Alabama system secured $250 million in credit from two banks last week. Other institutions likely will try to follow suit, as reports rise of institutions facing vast financial losses. In Texas, for example, plummeting oil prices are projected to cost public university systems at least $300 million.

A survey conducted by the American Association for Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers reveals 81 percent of institutions have moved instruction entirely online. Many institutions are giving students the option of changing their courses to pass/fail grading.

The shift to remote instruction has resulted in a surge in learning management system and synchronous video tool usage, consultant Phil Hill writes in his blog, Phil on Ed Tech. Hill predicts many instructors will shift toward asynchronous instruction as they start to realize the limitations of live videoconferencing.

In related news, reports of Zoombombing incidents picked up pace last week. A petition to prevent racially motivated cyberattacks on Zoom gained more than 30,000 signatures, and the FBI advised victims of videoconference hijacking to report it as a cybercrime. Zoom’s CEO published an apology in response to a string of articles criticizing the safety and security of the platform.

A quick roundup of the latest stories from Inside Higher Ed:

When the State Department suspended Fulbright grants last month, many recipients returned to the U.S. with no jobs, housing or health insurance, writes Elizabeth Redden.

Kery Murakami reports that free college proposals floated by presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden could be scaled back as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And Madeline St. Amour takes a deep dive into how faculty are adapting to serve a shifting student population, and what college leaders can do to support them.

What we’re reading elsewhere:

College classes delivered through videoconference calls are giving many students a glimpse into each other’s homes for the first time, highlighting stark inequalities, The New York Times reports.

Juggling academic life and potty training a toddler has been hit and miss (literally) for this academic couple, who wrote about their working-from-home experience for Times Higher Education.

Being a teenager is hard. Being a teenager during a pandemic is harder, writes Julia Finke, a high school senior from Virginia, for The Hechinger Report.

Percolating Thoughts

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending that everyone cover their face when heading outside. There are a plethora of videos describing how to make your own protective gear. But if you don't want to go the DIY route, CQ reports that you can buy ornamental face masks from cool streetwear brands for just a few hundred dollars! Safety, but make it fashion.

In more dystopian news, politicians and scientists in Italy are discussing whether coronavirus antibody testing could be used to determine who should return to work and who should stay at home now that new COVID-19 cases in the country have plateaued.

On the bright side, life in our brave new world might have some perks, writes blogger Tim Denning. Academic and writer Roxane Gay also touches on this idea in her Notes on Power in a Pandemic.

“Most of us are wondering when life will get back to normal but normal is what brought us to such a precarious place,” writes Gay. “Nothing should ever be the same again and while that is an unnerving prospect, it may also be our saving grace.”

Feel free to tell us what you’re discussing at the virtual water cooler in the comments below.

We'll keep bringing you the news you need during this turbulent time. Send us your questions and story ideas. We'll get through this together.

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American Medical Association Releases Guidance on Medical Student Participation in COVID-19 Response

Dom, 04/05/2020 - 08:45

Medical students across the country, at institutions like Harvard UniversityNew York University and the University of Kansas, are being permitted to graduate early to aid in the fight against COVID-19. Other students may be asked to help in patient care as part of their studies. The American Medical Association has now released guidance for medical schools and health systems on the involvement of medical students and early graduates.

"There are many opportunities for students to contribute to the clinical care of patients without engaging in direct physical contact with patients," an introduction to the guidance reads. "However, in some institutions the workforce demands may be great enough that it is appropriate to consider including medical students in direct patient care."

Among other recommendations, the AMA advises institutions to allow students to freely choose whether they would like to be involved in direct patient care, without incentives or coercion. Medical students should be given proper personal protective equipment and training on how to use it. Medical students should not be financially responsible for their own diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19 should they become sick from school-approved activities, the association said.

For institutions with early graduation options for medical students to aid in the pandemic, the association stresses that the option should be enacted on a voluntary basis and be founded on achievement of core competencies. Institutions should not compel students to begin their matched residencies earlier than originally intended and should grant graduates full status as employees with appropriate salaries and benefits, the organization advised.

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