From several directions, mainly out of the Department of Education and from efforts of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), and very quietly, there are some positive developments underway in American higher education, primarily in the form of repair work on laws, regulations, previous administrative edicts, and even some elements of foreign policy. Here are some of the most noteworthy:
- Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos proposes to repeal the Obama administration’s 2014 so-called “gainful employment rule”, which targeted for-profit colleges by penalizing them for excessive debt loads among their students, exclusively those enrolled in vocational programs and is clearly discriminatory against for-profit schools. It is true that colleges should have more of a stake and an incentive to reduce the debt loads of their students, but any such incentives should be broadly applied and not discriminatory against providers based on their tax status.
- The Secretary also announced recently that she will soon release new rules strengthening due process protections for students accused of sexual assault on campus. The rules will narrow the definition of sexual assault that schools are required to adjudicate, restrict eligible cases to those that occur on campus, and raise the burden of proof used by schools in adjudicating such cases from the currently required “preponderance of evidence standard”. This is long overdue protection from these college administrator “kangaroo courts”.
- Congress is considering the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA) under the name of The PROSPER Act and the NAS has been intimately involved in the process. Currently, due in large measure to the efforts of the NAS, the revised Act will improve protections for free speech on campus by eliminating free speech zones and restrictive speech codes; it adds strong protections for religious freedom and freedom of expression; it supports marketplace competition among delivery systems, including for-profit schools; and it streamlines and reforms Title IV student aid into a single loan program. There is much more to be done, but these provisions represent important improvements in the HEA.
- NAS has been heavily involved with studies of the various Confucius Institutes that have sprung up on over 100 American college and university campuses during the past 15 years. The original purpose of these CIs is to promote and teach Chinese culture and language around the world and currently there are several hundred Chinese teachers in CI programs on U. S. campuses. But there is growing concern that, in addition to the education mission, there is also a political mission that involves propaganda, influence purchasing, and surveillance useful to the Chinese government and possibly at odds with U. S. interests. NAS has conducted studies of the CIs and determined that some of these concerns are warranted and their reports have prompted the FBI to begin an investigation.
In the current highly charged environment, it is often difficult to break through the news cycle and find progress being made where “the rubber meets the road”, but there is some positive work being done by this administration and by its supportive non-profit institutions that is worthy of notice and these are good examples.