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In case you missed it in the end-of-the-year hubbub, there was a powerful, worth-your-time December story by reporters Jon Marcus and Holly Hacker at the Hechinger Report entitled “The rich-poor divide on America’s college campuses is getting wider, fast: Rich, poor take paths even more dramatically divergent than in the past, new data show.” According to the authors, higher education is increasingly, like the rest of our society, divided into classes of haves and have-nots. In many instances, wealthy kids go to exclusive schools that look a lot like country clubs and resorts while poorer students scramble to survive on dingy, overcrowded campuses run by overworked and underpaid teachers and administrators:

“Once acclaimed as the equal-opportunity stepping stone to the middle class, and a way of closing that divide, higher education has instead become more segregated than ever by wealth and race as state funding has fallen and colleges and universities — and even states and the federal government — are shifting financial aid from lower-income to higher-income students. This has created a system that spends the least on those who need the most help and the most on those who arguably need the least. While almost all the students who go to selective institutions such as Trinity graduate and get good jobs, many students from the poorest families end up even worse off than they started out, struggling to repay loans they took out to pay for degrees they never get.”

The story goes on to explain in great detail how the systems we have constructed are designed to favor wealthier students and families in myriad ways:

“It’s not about academic ability. The lowest-income students with the highest scores on eighth-grade standardized tests are less likely to go to selective colleges than the highest-income students with the lowest test scores, according to the Education Trust, which advocates for students who are being left behind in this way. If they do manage to make it to a top school, many do well — at Trinity, for instance, finishing with even higher graduation rates than their wealthier classmates. Read More

Commentary

[Editor’s note: Protesters, demanding reconsideration of the UNC Board of Governors’ recent decision to name Margaret Spellings as UNC system President, are expected to demonstrate at today’s board meeting. The following essay in support of the protest was written by frequent N.C. Policy Watch contributor Michael C. Behrent, a Professor at Appalachian State, and Ralph Wilson, a researcher at the higher education advocacy group UnKoch My Campus.]

Margaret Spellings: It’s all about the party
By Michael C. Behrent and Ralph Wilson

In late November, incoming UNC president Margaret Spellings made a trip to North Carolina, during which she tried to quell some of the outrage her record and secretive appointment by the UNC Board of Governors has triggered. She told the News and Observer that she had learned from her experience as President George W. Bush’s Education Secretary that public service “has to be about the ideas and the ideals, as opposed to party.”

Yet as more facts emerge about Spellings’ record, it becomes increasingly apparent that her “ideas and ideals” have always been first and foremost those of her party and its ideological agenda. For over a decade, she has worked tirelessly to end public education as we know it, be it through privatization, high-stakes testing, the imposition of a right-wing ideology on the school system and profiteering off of student debt.

True, she recently informed the News and Observer that she would resign at the year’s end from her position on the advisory board of Ceannate, a for-profit college loan company. But her political connections to movements to privatize public education, deny climate change, and dictate school curricular changes reflective of her own ideological agenda make her unfit to serve at the helm of UNC, a system that has long exemplified this country’s ideals of accessible, high-quality public education serving the common good.

Consider these facts:

As Bush’s Education Secretary, Spellings buried a study commissioned by her own Department that found that public schools performed as well as, if not better than, private schools. This finding, in conflict with the Bush administration’s pro-charter school/pro-privatization reform agenda, went completely unreported by Spellings’ office as it prepared to make $100 million dollars in school vouchers available under the No Child Left Behind Act. When confronted about the lack of disclosure, Spellings claimed that it was “was overlooked in [an] internal memo.” She later sent NPR a statement rejecting the findings: “This study, while it does contain noteworthy findings, it is an academic comparison of averages, and does not provide families the tools to make real world choices about their children’s education.”

Though Spellings has said little in public about her own views on environmental policy, she has close political and financial ties to influential climate change deniers. In 2010, Spellings became President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. The Chamber of Commerce, notorious for its climate denial, is intimately tied to the political machinations of Charles Koch’s network of donors, called the Freedom Partners. For instance, leaked information from Koch’s secret donor summits

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Commentary, News

As reported in this space two weeks ago, administrators at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee are considering a proposal by the controversial fossil fuel magnates, the Koch Brothers, that would give $2 million to the university to establish the WCU “Center for Study of Free Enterprise.” The proposal would make Western one of the largest university gift recipients in the country out of the scores of campuses currently receiving Koch money.

Monday, in an email to faculty, the chancellor at Western, David O. Belcher, announced that he is endorsing the proposal. Here is the text of the email:

Dear Colleagues,

I write to share with you my decision to endorse the recommendation of the Provost and Provost Council to establish the Center for the Study of Free Enterprise (CSFE). Western Carolina University’s Board of Trustees will consider this recommendation at their meeting scheduled later this week.

I have appreciated the healthy, robust conversation that this proposal has generated and which informed my own contemplation. It is my firm belief that the university, of all places, is and must be the locus of civil discourse and debate on the worthy issues and ideas of our time. I am grateful that, as demonstrated in this case, Western Carolina University is such an institution.

I trust you had a good Thanksgiving holiday and wish you well in these last weeks of the fall semester.

Yours,
David Belcher

As we also also reported previously, the proposal (which is being spearheaded by an arch-conservative economics professor) is opposed by Western’s Faculty Senate, which drew particular attention in an October statement to the fact that the Koch proposal is contingent upon the university matching the gift to the tune of $1.4 million. Unfortunately, the faculty opposition, which also highlighted the fact that other campus programs with outside funding could benefit from $1.4 million in matching university support, appears to have fallen of deaf ears.

As Chancellor Belcher noted in his email, Western’s Board of Trustees (which includes, among others, conservative firebrand and former Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer), will consider the proposal later this week.

Commentary

Gene NicholIn case you missed it over the weekend, Gene Nichol was dead on in an op-ed blasting the University of North Carolina’s multimillion dollar expenditures on public relations firms in the wake of recent academic and athletic scandals. As Nichol rightfully points out, the notion that public institutions must turn to high-priced private consultants to clean up internal messes when they already employ a fleet of administrators whose job is to precisely that is crazy. Nichol highlights two of the most obvious reasons:

First, it’s a massive waste of precious resources:

“When we spend $10 million or $15 million on the nation’s most expensive lawyers and corporate consultants, we deploy funds that could have supported impoverished Carolina Covenant students, or increased skimpy graduate student stipends, or raised the salaries of maintenance workers. I’ve never heard the university admit this. So enough with the “it’s only private money” charade.”

Second, if existing staff aren’t up to the job, then why the heck are they there?

“Our greatest chancellor, William B. Aycock, died a few months ago. Dealing with crises like the Dixie Classic and the Speaker Ban, Aycock saw his share of trouble. Still, he never considered hiring ‘the most complete communications agency in the world.’

Thinking of Aycock, it’s easy to envision two distinct approaches to leadership and problem solving. In the first, decision-makers sit around a huge table in South Building. There is a chancellor and her cadre of assistants. And then a provost and his sizable group. Add to that our internal public relations team. And our external PR posse. Then there are internal and external groups of lawyers. As I said, it’s a big table.

They work for days, or weeks, responding to a crisis. Eventually a decision is made, and the group produces a statement to be issued by the chancellor. The final product is so chockablock with doublespeak that faculty members jokingly circulate email translations for the bureaucratically unschooled.

In the other model, Aycock returns to his campus office late in the evening after having had dinner with his family. He has consulted with university officials throughout the day. Now he sits behind his desk, a small lamp providing illumination. He makes the toughest decisions. And with pen and yellow legal pad, he explains them to the university community and to the people of North Carolina.

The first model, of course, costs millions. The second, a relative pittance. But the cheap route would outperform the big boys every time.”

Click here to read Nichol’s entire essay.

 

News

Here’s a spot of good news to brighten a rather dreary Thanksgiving week landscape: a science program at Fayetteville State, one of North Carolina’s network of historically black colleges and universities (HBCU’s) is being celebrated as a national leader. This from an article in the the Fayetteville Observer:

“ForensicsColleges.com, a website that tracks forensic science programs, lists FSU as No. 2 among its top 15 programs in the nation, based on teaching hands-on skills with laboratory classes, seminars and internships or field study. The site also looked at facilities, partnerships and career placement opportunities. The website, which is run by an educational publishing company called Sechel Ventures, says it seeks to provide a detailed, researched directory of programs and careers in the forensics field.”

The rating comes as a welcome boost to HBCU’s which have so long suffered from underinvestment and small-to-non-existent campus endowments. The obvious take away: HBCU’s can and often do provide a high quality education to thousands of students. The key is to give the schools the resources and tools they need to survive and thrive. Let’s hope state lawmakers are paying attention.