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President to President

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President to President
Molly Corbett Broad's weekly email newsletter to higher education leaders.

President to President, December 5-9, 2011

Vol. 12, No. 45

  • Two Killed in Virginia Tech Shooting
  • Appropriations, Tax Extensions, College Cost on End-of-Year Agenda
  • Administration Issues Guidance on Achieving Diversity in Higher Education
  • ACE Files Brief in Support of University of Minnesota in Student Discipline Case
  • Register Now for ACE's Annual Meeting

Before I get to this week's developments in Washington, I am so sorry to have to say our thoughts and sympathies are again with the Virginia Tech community, which yesterday lost a campus police officer killed in the line of duty.

The officer was shot at close range while making a traffic stop in a university parking lot. The gunman then fled the scene, leading to a lockdown of students and staff and the activation of the school's emergency notification alert system. A second man, whose identity has not been confirmed but who is believed to be the gunman, was found dead from a gunshot wound nearby.

Almost five years after the 2007 tragedy which took so many promising young lives, Virginia Tech remains a strong and vibrant source of teaching and innovation. Despite yesterday's events, I know the university, under the leadership of President Charles Steger, will ultimately recover once again.

With the holidays approaching and one week left in this congressional session, several high-profile items impacting higher education remain on the agenda, including appropriations for FY 2012 and the extension of several important tax credits. In addition, the Obama administration continued to highlight the issue of college cost this week at a White House meeting with higher education leaders.

House and Senate negotiators reportedly are moving closer to a year-end spending deal for FY 2012, a so-called omnibus measure which would wrap the nine remaining spending bills into one package. As Politico reported yesterday, the bill must be filed in the House by Monday night to ensure floor action before Dec. 16, when the latest stopgap continuing resolution is due to expire.

One of the holdups in completing the omnibus is the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education bill, which many House Republicans would like to see isolated and dealt with separately. You may remember that both the proposed House and Senate measures assume the maximum Pell Grant will remain at $5,550 for the 2012-13 academic year. To help finance this level of Pell, the House would make eligibility changes that would eliminate Pell Grants for roughly 600,000 students. Meanwhile, the Senate would like to make a change in the student loan program that would increase the cost of loans slightly for all borrowers.

These highly controversial proposals are still on the table and will need to be resolved if the larger omnibus measure is to contain Labor-HHS provisions. In a public meeting yesterday morning, appropriations committee leaders emphasized the need to include all outstanding bills and complete the omnibus as quickly as possible in order to start with a clean slate in January and resolve the logjam that has been the annual budget and appropriations process. However, it remains to be seen if their actions will match their rhetoric.

In addition to appropriations, Congress has three more issues it must address before Dec. 31: extending the Social Security payroll tax exemption and long-term unemployment benefits, and fixing the Medicare payment reduction to physicians. The majority of members want all three enacted but are deadlocked over how to come up with the $275 billion it will cost. If the payroll tax exemption is not extended, the average family will see roughly $1,000 less in their take-home pay beginning Jan. 1.

Although the main focus over the past month has been on the payroll tax, there are a handful of other expiring tax credits that also need attention before Dec. 31. Among these are the above-the-line deduction for qualified tuition and related expenses and the Individual Retirement Account (IRA) Charitable Rollover. We sent a letter yesterday to Senate Finance and House Ways and Means Committee leadership, asking that any tax legislation passed before the end of the year contain these two important extensions. However, even if these credits expire Dec. 31, their loss would not be felt by taxpayers until 2013, so there is still time to move legislation.

Meanwhile at the White House, President Obama on Monday continued to highlight the issue of college cost and making higher education more affordable for students and families. He hosted 10 presidents and chancellors, along with senior White House officials and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, at a roundtable to talk about strategies to reduce costs and improve quality. As I mentioned last week, we believe this discussion will continue well into 2012, and I encourage you to let both the Education Department and ACE know of any initiatives your campus has in the works to contain costs and improve productivity.

The Departments of Justice and Education on Dec. 2 released a new guidance document detailing the flexibility the Supreme Court has provided to colleges and universities to promote diversity on campus.

The guidance, based on three Supreme Court decisions, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, describes how race can be taken into account in admissions, pipeline programs, recruitment and support programs such as mentoring and tutoring as efforts to achieve diversity. Previous guidance issued by the Bush administration in 2008 has been withdrawn.

I know many institutions have been confused about how to follow court rulings and still achieve the benefits of diversity, so we welcome this practical, step-by-step set of directions. However, while we strongly support the intent of the guidance, this is an extremely complex area and campuses need to tread carefully when implementing diversity programs. Be sure and talk with your legal advisors before taking any action.

To read the full guidance, see the Education Department's website.

ACE filed an amicus brief this week in the case Tatro v. the University of Minnesota, which deals with the university's right to address threats and enforce academic codes of conduct and professional ethics.

The case involves a student in the University of Minnesota's (UMN) mortuary science program who posted comments on her Facebook page that frightened her peers and professors. When these postings were brought to UMN's attention, the university called a disciplinary hearing. The student, Amanda Tatro, was ultimately required to undergo a psychiatric evaluation, accept a failing grade for her anatomy lab course, take an ethics class and write a letter to a faculty member about the issue of respect in the profession of mortuary science. Notably, she was not expelled from the university or the mortuary science program.

Ms. Tatro in turn sued UMN, claiming infringement of her right to free speech. The university was successful in the lower courts and she has now appealed the case to the Supreme Court of Minnesota. ACE's brief in support of UMN emphasizes the threatening nature of the Facebook postings, which violated student codes of conduct, and highlights the university's desire to teach professional ethics in the field of mortuary science. ACE argues that in this case, the university's determinations are entitled to deference under the tradition of academic freedom.

ACE was joined on the brief by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Association of American Universities and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Participants in ACE's 94th Annual Meeting, scheduled for March 10-13, 2012, will have an opportunity to hear some of higher education's preeminent leaders and innovators from the United States and around the world.

I am very pleased that Monday morning's plenary session will feature Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, whose work was featured in Wednesday's Inside Higher Ed. The article describers Khan and his cohorts as breaking "new ground by changing how educators think about teaching, how psychologists think about learning, how employers think about credentialing, and how everybody thinks about the price of a good education."

Follow @ACEducation on Twitter (hashtag #ACE2012) for information as it becomes available.

Molly Corbett Broad
President of ACE