College and university presidents: Time to speak up

Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University — Photo:

As students, faculty and administrators at North Carolina’s colleges and universities struggle with questions of free speech and academic freedom, veteran leaders in higher education — including a former chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill — are urging them to speak up on difficult issues.

Last week Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, cited a a recent Chronicle of Higher Education survey that found 80 percent of presidents said they would self-censor their comments on national political issues “to avoid creating a controversy for themselves or their colleges.”

Last year, when the first in a series of student surveys on speech issues found 68 percent of conservative students at UNC-Chapel Hill reported self-censoring, it was regarded as a crisis by Republican leaders and activists in the state.

But the consequences for the leaders and representatives of college and universities self-censoring at a volatile time in the nation’s history are perhaps more dire, McGuire wrote in her guest column for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“The implications for the future of higher education and this nation are dire if we presidents fail to break out of our posture of self-censorship and take our rightful places in the bully pulpit,” McGuire wrote.

In late July the UNC-Chapel Hill Board of Trustees adopted both the “Chicago Principles” and the conclusions of the “Kalven Committee Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action” in late July.

The “Chicago Principles,” crafted at the University of Chicago in 2014, affirm free expression as essential to university culture. Dozens of colleges, universities, and student and faculty groups have adopted them, including the UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Council in 2018.

But the principles are not without controversy. Political conservatives, many who believe right-wing speech and ideology are suppressed in academia, support the principles. Some educators believe they preserve free, open and rigorous debate on campuses. Yet others say they fail to address some of the thorniest issues about free expression on campus and can be used to justify ignoring or curtailing student activism.

Far more controversial is the Kalven report, a product of the tumultuous political environment on campuses in the late 1960s. Few colleges or universities have adopted the conclusions of the report. Its critics at UNC system schools say it’s easy to see why: The report emphasizes that a university should stay neutral on controversial political issues.

In adopting the Kalven report, the UNC Board of Trustees said it “recognizes that the neutrality of the University on social and political issues ‘arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.’

The report “further acknowledges ‘a heavy presumption against the university taking collective action or expressing opinions on the political and social issues of the day,’” the trustees wrote in their resolution of support.

McGuire rejected the idea that colleges and universities have an obligation to be neutral in times of political upheaval and controversy.

From her piece: Read more

A neck and neck Senate race, more questions for ReBuildNC, and NC’s controversial A-F school grading system may get a makeover: The week’s top stories on Policy Watch

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Weekend humor from Celia Rivenbark: Angry about student loan forgiveness? Not me

Here’s what I don’t understand.

Why does it fry your tater if someone who used a student loan to help pay for college gets up to $20,000 of that loan forgiven?

Is it because Lauren Boebert (R-Pluto) quipped the loan was used for “Karen’s daughter’s lesbian dance theory class?” (Boebert loves a dog-whistle so a dig at a lifestyle she doesn’t approve of wasn’t even the worst thing she said all weekend. Speculation that Joe Biden wears adult diapers rolled right off her forked tongue the next day. Classy!)

Boebert’s nothing if not predictable but the rest of y’all? I don’t get the outsized outrage that someone who thought a college degree could lead to a better life is getting a little break.

Is it because you find it a lot more palatable to give billionaires tax breaks? The mental contortions required to seriously whine about college loan forgiveness that benefits working class Americans while CRICKETS on the 1 percenter’s is hard to explain. Maybe it’s because you think the fat cats are job creators whose largesse will trickle down to the working man. Well, no. Except in the way bird poo trickles down your arm if you feed the seagulls long enough.

“B-b-b-but I had to pay mine back” you say. Are you also bitter your property taxes fund education even though you don’t have kids in school? Do you not give to cancer research because your relative didn’t live? How deep does this particular ugly go?

Some of the loudest uproar comes from conservative Christians which, as several common-sense pastors have pointed out, is super weird considering Christianity is founded on the idea of a cancelled debt. Amen?

To be honest, I don’t believe everyone needs to go to a four-year college. I have a two-year degree from a community college that cost almost nothing. It was a good call that led to a great career, and I spend exactly zero seconds regretting that decision.

For the past six or seven years I’ve mentored high school seniors who, almost always, are going to be first-gen college students. My task is to help them craft a compelling “Common App” essay. Here’s what I’ve learned: There needs to be a whole lot more financial literacy taught in schools. Even better if the parents attend as well. Because what happens is, a student with little to no college fund gets accepted to a private school with steep tuition and a glam campus. Usually, the school’s admission rate is high enough to be sus, as the kids say.

I always counsel these kids to get those first two years at community college. No debt. Legit course credit. And two years to grow a little wiser about their path. Plenty of these loans being forgiven are for community college grads in the trades, plumbing, electrical, HVAC, etc. You got a problem with that, too?

It’s disgraceful for bottom-feeding schools with huge price tags and zero academic bona fides to be allowed to show up on campus to recruit. But they do. And these kids’ eyes light up because they see the dream, not the debt.

This may sound like I am talking out of both sides of my laptop but I’m not. I don’t begrudge the desire to live the dream. That’s what being young and hopeful is about. Mistakes (wrong major, bad college) will be made sometimes. But other times, that degree can lead to a job that reverses a generational slide into poverty. So, yeah, forgive that loan. Instead of the mythical “job creators” with offshore accounts, paying zero taxes and only concerned with shareholders, show some love to these folks who now have more income with the boot off their neck. More income to resuscitate the economy, even. Win-win.

Celia Rivenbark is a NYT-bestselling author and columnist. Write to her at [email protected].

State’s controversial A-F school grading system to receive a makeover

State education leaders are looking to retool the state’s controversial A-F performance grading system that North Carolina began using nearly a decade ago.

The N.C. Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) launched a survey Thursday in partnership with EdNC, an online news agency, that asks parents, teachers and others for advice about how to best evaluate schools. The survey will remain open until Oct. 10. The results will be posted publicly.

School performance grades are mainly determined by student scores on state end-of-grade and end-of-course tests. Eighty percent of the grade is based on student proficiency on state tests and 20 percent on the academic growth students experience from one year to the next.

Critics have argued since the inception of the Republican-backed grading system in 2013 that it paints an inaccurate picture of the teaching and learning occurring in North Carolina’s schools. Letter grades are used by parents to make big decisions such as where to buy homes and which school to enroll their children.

A big concern among critics is that the A-F grades penalize economically disadvantaged students and low-wealth schools.

“North Carolina’s SPG (school performance grade) system needlessly stigmatizes schools that serve Black, brown, and Native students. Schools enrolling such students are much more likely to receive “failing” grades than schools that are disproportionately white and Asian,” Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst for the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law Project, wrote in 2021 report titled: School Performance Grades: A Legislative Tool for Stigmatizing Non-White Schools.  (Policy Watch is a project of the N.C. Justice Center.)

More than 58 percent of schools where 81% to 100% of students are economically disadvantaged received a letter grade of F in the most recent round of grading. Statewide, only 10% of schools scored F. Roughly 42% of all schools received letter grades of D or F.

Meanwhile, supporters believe the grades help to hold schools accountable for student achievement, provide parents with understandable data and allow schools to target areas for improvement.

The school grading system must be changed to accurately measure school performance, said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt, a Republican.

“School performance grades are really about school quality, but right now the model overemphasizes student test scores while not accounting for the other ways schools are preparing students for post-secondary success,” Truitt said.

The superintendent said the model should incorporate other important metrics – not just high-stakes student testing – to redefine school quality.

“This survey is the first step of many, as we look to solicit feedback from across the state and select indicators that help paint a more complete picture of school quality,” Truitt said.

A working group that met this month to begin to discuss and redesign school performance grades explored additional indicators to measure school quality such as school climate, school safety, parent engagement and career/college readiness, according to a NCDPI press release. Any new model must comply with federal requirements.

“While academic proficiency in our schools remains of utmost importance, there are other indicators that should be considered in the overall model,” said Deputy Superintendent Michael Maher, who oversees the Office of Innovation, which is charged with the school performance grade redesign work. “This process is heavily focused on feedback so that we can learn what North Carolinians deem important that should be considered when determining the quality of a school.”

The state’s modeled its A-F school grade system largely after the one used in Florida. That state started assigning school letter grades in 1999 based on state test scores.

Florida revamped its letter grading system for the 2014-15 school year and grades are now based on achievement (proficiency), learning gains (growth), graduation rates, and college and career acceleration, which includes student success on AP or International Baccalaureate exams.

UNC Board of Governors skips national search, names David Crabtree permanent CEO of PBS NC

David Crabtree

David Crabtree, former long-time reporter and anchor at WRAL, was made CEO of PBS NC Thursday after a unanimous vote by the UNC Board of Governors. Crabtree has served as interim leader of the organization for the past five months.

The board broke precedent in hiring Crabtree, who will make $275,000 per year in his new role, by not conducting a national candidate search. Such a search isn’t required for the organization’s top executive – but it has been standard protocol for decades.

UNC System President Peter Hans told the board Thursday he was glad he could lure Crabtree away from WRAL to take on the interim role in April. The original plan was to do a national search for candidates, but Hans said over the last few months he rethought that.

“As he settled into the role I began to ask myself, ‘Why in the world would we conduct a search for a new CEO and general manager when we have a seasoned manager and pro right here?” Hans said.

The shift in process has some people within PBS NC and state government asking questions.

State Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Guilford) served on the UNC Board of Governors for nearly a decade, from 2001-2010. She is also a member of the state’s Education/Higher Education committee. Asked about the manner in which Crabtree was hired this week, Robinson said the step away from precedent is troubling.

UNC System President Peter Hans.

“We’ve traditionally done a national search for a position that important to make sure we choose someone who can compete nationally and to be sure that we hire the very best that the market has to offer,” Robinson said. “You can’t get the best candidate if you don’t compare them to other applicants.”

“With the reputation that PBS NC has, I would imagine you would have a lot of people all across the nation interested in that position,” Robinson said.

PBS NC, the four-channel public television network reaching all 100 of North Carolina counties was, until last year, known as UNC-TV. Reaching more than 14 million viewers in North Carolina and surrounding states, is the third-largest PBS member station in the nation and has an annual budget of about $30 million.

According to state statute, the UNC System president recommends the station’s CEO, and the UNC Board of Governors then votes on that person. But for the past 30 years, the system has held national searches for the position. Taking that step reduced the likelihood of cronyism or political patronage in executive level hires, Robinson said.

“You’re looking for the best possible hire that you can get anywhere,” Robinson said. “This shouldn’t be a situation where you just hire someone you know, that you’re comfortable with, maybe someone you are friendly with and who has a good reputation. That’s not how this process should work.”

Crabtree himself did not return calls or emails from Policy Watch this week. Doug Strasnick, his chief of staff, said he was out of town at a public media conference. Crabtree did not attend Thursday’s board of governors meeting.

Jack Clayton, chair of the PBS NC board of trustees did not return calls or emails. UNC System staff said Hans was unavailable to comment on the process until Thursday, after the vote had been taken. Several members of the UNC board of governors declined to comment, citing concerns about personnel privacy.

“There is a reason that there’s been a national search for these positions for so long,” Robinson said. “There’s a history there.” Read more