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Indiana presidents speak out against ‘religious freedom’ law

Madeline Will, The Chronicle of Higher Education
03 April 2015 University World News Global Edition Issue 361

The Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act has stoked national controversy and outrage since Governor Mike Pence signed it into law on Thursday. Meanwhile, for university leaders in the state, it has become a public-relations nightmare.

The Indiana state government’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act has stoked national controversy and outrage since Governor Mike Pence signed it into law. Meanwhile, for university leaders in the state, it has become a public-relations nightmare.

This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.

The ramifications of the law are unclear. Advocates say it is meant to protect religious liberty, but many others have expressed concern that the law will become a tool of discrimination — a way to allow businesses to turn away lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender customers.

Perhaps because of the lack of clarity, colleges are fielding calls from concerned prospective students and their parents. Current students and faculty members are voicing their concerns, too. University leaders have had to make a decision: Do they speak out against the law? How do they strike a balance between protecting the free exchange of ideas on their campuses and promising to be inclusive?

So far, seven institutions in the state have issued statements promising to honour their non-discrimination policies. Most, but not all, of the statements go on to condemn the law.

James M Danko, president of Butler University, became the first to weigh in. He called the law "ill conceived" and urged state leaders to "take immediate action to address the damage done by this legislation".

When the bill was passed, Danko said in an interview he did not want to get involved. But the immediate reaction to the new law, particularly from concerned prospective students, changed his plans.

"As the crescendo of noise continued to elevate," Danko said, he felt he had to speak out. "As a major employer in the city of Indianapolis, and the way that we attract people from outside the state, it was important to at least call for some common-sense approach to addressing the situation."

A few hours after his statement was released, a statement from DePauw University president, Brian W Casey, came out, although he said the timing was coincidental, while later that evening, Indiana University president, Michael A McRobbie, released a statement of his own.

"We take comfort knowing that other universities also followed suit," Danko said.

‘The tipping point’

For presidents such as Casey, the decision to speak out did not come easily. "I always think that university presidents have to be very careful speaking about current political matters," he said. "The last thing you want to do is develop official positions that stop debate on your campus. You wade into these waters only at the right time."

DePauw will soon host an event at which students can debate the merits of the law. "You want to make sure you’re providing those spaces to have those conversations," Casey said.

"We are in the business of attracting faculty and students, and if we are located in a state that does not look to be a place welcoming of all folks, that immediately hurts us [and] that’s the tipping point of the reason why you make the statement."

College presidents often shy away from taking a strong stance on social issues, let alone new laws, because they are concerned about pushback from college boards or donors, said Raymond E Crossman, president of Adler University.

Crossman, who is outspoken about many social issues, including LGBT rights, said he thought that was a mistake. In particular, higher education leaders had a responsibility to speak out on human rights issues.

"Campus communities want to see authentic leadership; I think they want their leaders to act as people," he said. "When we’re administrative robots, I think ultimately that confuses folks."

Both Danko and Casey said the reactions to their statements were mostly positive, particularly on their campuses. Students and faculty members were glad the university had said something, Casey said.

At Purdue University, the administration’s caution drew some criticism from students. The editor in chief of Purdue’s student newspaper, The Exponent, called for the president to either condemn or support the law, but to let students know where he stands.

The president is Mitchell E Daniels, a Republican who preceded Pence as Indiana’s governor. Daniels has declined to comment on the law, citing a longstanding board of trustees policy that the university was not to take part in public debates of this nature.

But then a statement from the president’s office reiterated the university’s non-discrimination policy. "We wish to take this opportunity to affirm our unwavering commitment to our principles and our opposition to any governmental measure that would interfere with their practice on our campuses," the statement said. It stopped short of explicitly condemning the new law.

`Negative ramifications’

More colleges in the state might release statements about what has become a national issue, as might colleges across the country. For instance, San Francisco State University president, Leslie E Wong, announced that no university funds would be used to pay for employee or student travel to Indiana.

"It is unconscionable for this great university to spend its resources in a state that attempts to legislate discrimination of any kind," Wong said in a written statement.

In the midst of this debate, Governor Pence, a Republican, said he would support new legislation to "clarify the intent of the law”. But that might be too little, too late, college presidents said.

"The law itself is not going to have the impact that people want to believe," Danko said. "But it’s not going to make a difference. Perception becomes reality. And we really do have to be sensitive to the negative ramifications this might have."

Pence has said he would not support a repeal of the law although the president of his alma mater, Hanover College, issued one of the strongest condemnations of the governor’s stance: Sue DeWine wrote an open letter that called the consequences of the law an affront to everything the college stood for.

"I ask that Governor Pence honour the values of his alma mater," DeWine wrote. "At Hanover College we celebrate inclusion, acceptance, and openness to all persons. We do this not only because it represents the very best of what it means to be a Hoosier, but also because it is morally the right thing to do."

University World News

Top universities abandon support for government plans

Geoff Maslen
31 March 2015 University World News Global Edition Issue 361

The nation’s leading Group of Eight research-intensive universities has done a sudden about-turn in its support for the federal government’s higher education reforms and called for an independent “depoliticised” review by the learned academies and employer and business organisations.
The nation’s leading Group of Eight, or Go8, research-intensive universities has done a sudden about-turn in its support for the federal government’s higher education reforms and called for an independent “depoliticised” review by the learned academies and employer and business organisations.

Although the group continues to back the government’s controversial plan to deregulate tuition fees and allow vice-chancellors to set their own, it is no longer endorsing Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s reform proposals that would have extended federal funding to for-profit universities and non-university colleges, creating a United States-style system in Australia.

In a release on 31 March, the Go8 says it has consistently stated that the current funding model for Australian universities is “broken” and that is why it has supported fee deregulation “as the only long-term sustainable solution on offer”.

But the group now says the Senate has twice voted down deregulation of fees while a funding crisis continues that can only worsen with time. So a solution must be found.

“The Go8 is concerned that a number of other proposals being floated as solutions do not tackle the core issue of long-term funding satisfactorily. There is speculation that a further review process may be under consideration [yet] higher education is already one of Australia’s most reviewed sectors.”

`Rats deserting sinking ship'

The National Tertiary Education Union seized on the release to describe the Group of Eight, in a wonderful mixed metaphor, as behaving “like rats deserting a sinking ship [and] depriving Minister Pyne of his greatest cheerleaders”.

“Pyne now has no option but to dump his incoherent and desperate attempts to push on with his unprincipled, unfair and unsustainable higher education policies,” declared union President Jeannie Rea. “It is time that university leaders and the minister accept that the senate’s refusal to pass the government’s higher education policy is because it is not supported by the majority of Australian voters.”

Rea said neither Pyne nor the vice-chancellors had convinced the public that fee deregulation would benefit Australia, given that it would leave some students paying A$100,000 (US$76,300) for a degree.

“As the chaos and uncertainty brought upon [the] vocational education and training system through open market competition and subsidising for-profit private providers has proven, making deregulation the centre of any tertiary education policy is inconsistent with having a sustainable funding framework,” she said.

Call for review

In its call for a "depoliticised" review, the Go8 says this could include the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Minerals Council of Australia, together with the learned academies.

“Such a review would also consider the full scope of university funding, including research funding. High quality research is vital for our nation’s future economic prosperity and the Group of Eight universities receive almost 75% of all competitive grant funding for research,” the release says.

The review should consider the nation’s willingness to invest in research in ways that enabled it to be undertaken without the current level of cross-subsidisation by teaching fees, it says. A review of this type had the potential to illustrate for the public and politicians in a much clearer way the issues currently facing the sector.

But neither the Labor Party Opposition nor Pyne have backed the review proposal. Pyne said 33 reviews into Australian higher education had been undertaken since 1950 and he could see no reason to hold another.

CEO highlights Go8 importance

In a newsletter to her vice-chancellors last week, Go8’s chief executive Vicki Thomson highlighted the influence and significance of the eight universities to Australian higher education and the wider community.

“The Go8 universities educate 25% of all higher education students in Australia and teach more than 40% of the nation’s engineering and science students, and more than 62% of all Australia’s medical, dentistry and veterinary students,” Thomson wrote.

“And of course we excel in research. In 2013, our research funding was A$2.4 billion or two-thirds of all research funding to Australian universities. More than 30,000 research students were enrolled at a Go8 university, and over half of all research degree completions were from a Go8 university."

She said these facts and figures showed why the Go8 had put so much effort into encouraging politicians to deal with the funding crisis affecting higher education.

"The percentage of students and the percentage of research the Go8 is responsible for, the value we push out into the economy, means that bad public policy or panicked band-aid political decisions which are not an effective long-term solution, negatively impact on the Go8 more than other universities," Thomson said.

University World News

Universities and colleges face wholesale reforms

Jan Petter Myklebust
30 March 2015 University World News Global Edition Issue 361

The Norwegian government has begun the biggest higher education reforms since 1994, when 98 higher education institutions were merged into 26 university colleges. Minister of Education and Research Torbjørn Røe Isaksen said he expected significantly fewer universities and university colleges would exist in the future than the 33 institutions today. The Norwegian government has begun the biggest series of higher education reforms since 1994, when 98 higher education institutions were merged into 26 university colleges.

Minister of Education and Research Torbjørn Røe Isaksen said he expected significantly fewer universities and university colleges would result from the reforms than the 33 Norwegian institutions today.

“The time is now ripe for this reform,” Isaksen said. “I have not met with one single person who has expressed any regrets about the 1994 mergers.”

Under the changes, 14 universities and university colleges are to be merged into five new universities or university colleges. The largest of the new institutions will be the Norwegian University of Technology in Trondheim.

A national commission of experts delivered a report on reforming the higher education system in 2008, but this was shelved. The plans were taken up again by the new Conservative-Progress Party government after it won the 2013 election, following eight years of a “red-green” coalition government.

White paper

The present government released a white paper setting out the new reforms. It appears to have based its structural change on similar reforms in Denmark, Finland, Sweden, England, the Netherlands and Switzerland, where the focus was on turning university colleges into universities, often through mergers.

A major aspect of the Norwegian reforms is extending teacher training to a five-year masters programme. This will require greater collaboration between the universities and university colleges.

Isaksen used the terms “robustness” and “less fragmentation” several times during his presentation of the reforms. He said Norway had too many smaller higher education institutions with little demand for all their programmes. Some had problems attracting highly qualified staff and consequently produced little research and too few graduate students.

”In particular, the ability to compete for and attract external funding for research is very limited. Hence, the pre-conditions for active participation in international research network cooperation are not present,” he said.

There was also a need for changes to generate education and research of high quality, with more robust research groups in which several should be world-leading, Isaksen said. This would provide a more effective use of available resources and thereby contribute to regional development, with better higher education and research competence across the country.

Although the universities of Oslo and Bergen will not be involved in any mergers for the present, they are included in discussions regarding 22 other institutions, both private and public colleges, where mergers and other collaborative options will be discussed.

The earlier programme for transforming university colleges into universities stopped when the present government took office in 2013. Although this scheme will now proceed, the criteria for achieving university status has been tightened and new universities will require their doctoral programmes to have at least 15 doctoral students each, and over time graduate at least 15 candidates each year.

Academic recognition of masters and doctoral courses will be transferred to a national quality assurance body called NOKUT. This will act under more direct control of the ministry.

Similarly, the head of the universities’ governing boards will be appointed by the ministry and selected from outside each university. At present, a university rector is chair of the board and he or she can be elected by the university staff – although this gives academic staff greater influence over the election than administrative and technical staff, or the student vote.

Norway will now follow the other Nordic countries where the education ministries have long appointed the head of the university boards. From now on, Norwegian rectors will be appointed by the board.

Financial consequences

The consequences of the reforms on institutional budgets will not be known until the government’s budget for 2016 is presented in October. University and college allocations are composed of a basic component of 70% and an incentive provision of 30%.

The basic component is historically subject to several parameters and the incentive is based on four: the number of research contracts awarded from the Research Council of Norway, the number of doctoral candidates graduating; the number of publications produced by academic staff; and the research income from the European research programmes, where the latter is matched by the same amount as the institution is receiving.

Two expert commissions have been analysing this financial system, the Productivity Commission and a university financing commission. Both have proposed revisions that will be considered by the government when preparing its 2016 budget.

Rector of the University of Bergen, Dag Rune Olsen, said the point of the reforms was to improve quality: “Mergers will in some cases be rational, but these cannot be a goal in itself. A merger is one of several instruments that can be used and not the only one. For the University of Bergen and the other higher education institutions here, this means a great degree of autonomy for the way ahead.”

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