The 2018 “Not Top Ten” List in Higher Education

Yesterday, I unveiled my sixth annual list of the top ten events in American higher education in 2018. Now it’s time for the annual list of the “not top ten” events—which are a mix of puzzling decisions and epic fails that leave most of us wondering what people were thinking. (Catch up on my previous lists here.) Enjoy the list—and send along any feedback that you have!

(10) Some college presidents can’t help but do stupid things. As I wrote about yesterday, being a college president is a difficult job in part because of the constant public spotlight. But this means that presidents (who usually receive media training) should know how to avoid really silly mistakes. But someone forget to tell that to two presidents this year. Southeast Missouri State University’s president was forced to apologize after drinking from a beer bong at a tailgate party before a road football game. The (now-former) president of Edinboro University made national headlines after he tried to use a “Wag the Dog” disinformation strategy to make changes to his university. This may have worked if he didn’t try to pitch a story to The Chronicle about himself—a move that he later came to regret.

(9) It was a busy year for poop-related stories in higher education. Three fascinating stories about good old number 2 stood out in 2018. First, the University of Kansas made national news for installing a bicycle rack shaped like the letters P-A-R-C. Reading it from the other side, though, revealed a different message. Staying with the University of Kansas, someone stole an inflatable ten-foot colon owned by its cancer center in October (what, you don’t want to walk through it?). Thankfully, the colon was found in a vacant house in Kansas City. More seriously, Nebraska congressman Jeff Fortenberry tried to get a University of Nebraska professor in trouble with his employer for liking a Facebook post of a vandalized campaign sign that changed the “o” in the representative’s name to an “a” (what is with my fellow Midwesterners and poop?). Thankfully, although the professor’s behaviors were sophomoric at best, cooler heads prevailed and he did not get fired for expressing his First Amendment rights.

(8) Adventures in research, part 1. As a researcher who interacts with a wide range of people (largely through higher education Twitter), I come across some blatantly awful ways that people do or explain research. Here are four tweets, two from me and two from the tremendous Doug Webber at Temple University, that explain why I buy headache medicine in bulk.

Journalists, please read this post from earlier in the year in which I offer my thoughts on how to think about the pitches you all receive about every five minutes.

(7) The Review of Higher Education grinds to a halt after becoming hopelessly backlogged with accepted articles. On a beautiful summer evening, I was living the academic dream (reviewing an article for The Review of Higher Education while listening to a Cardinals game with the windows open) when I stumbled across a note on the journal’s website that no new papers were being accepted due to a two-year backlog. I tweeted this out and both Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle soon covered the shutdown. Part of the issue is with the peer review process itself (the length of the process is brutal for grad students and junior faculty), and part is that the journal simply accepted too many good papers. The journal will reopen for submissions late next summer after being closed for about 15 months, so my thoughts are with the other major higher ed journals as they get swamped even more.

(6) Folks, don’t make up a fake counteroffer in an effort to get a pay raise. Like most employees, it’s not uncommon for faculty members to feel like they are underpaid. (And thanks to public employees’ salaries generally being available to the public, it’s often not that hard to get an idea of whether that is true.) And it’s also not that unusual for top-shelf faculty at research universities to go on the job market to get an offer from another university with the hope that their home university matches it. But while some faculty may feel icky about this process, it’s not illegal. However, faking a counteroffer like former Colorado State University professor Brian McNaughton did was bound to backfire—and it did in epic fashion. Do not try this at home.

(5) The first wave of Public Service Loan Forgiveness requests met a woefully underprepared Department of Education. One of the data points that got a tremendous amount of attention in 2018 was the finding that more than 99% of students who applied for PSLF were rejected. Part of the high rejection rate makes sense, because the program began in 2007 and students had to work for a qualified public or private nonprofit organization while making 120 loan payments. But part of this can be attributed to ED dropping the ball across three different administrations, as noted by a Government Accountability Office report. Congress did pass a Temporary Expanded PSLF program this year for students who were in the wrong loan program, but expect chaos for a few years while the bugs get worked out. (For students interested in receiving PSLF, see this piece I wrote with some key pointers.)

(4) West Virginia’s proposed tuition-free community college programs would have required students to take (and pay for) drug tests each semester. The state’s governor and Senate president introduced the bill as an effort to improve college access in a state with low college attainment rates. How could anyone be opposed to this idea, which is increasingly common for public assistance programs? My answer: the state’s longstanding merit aid program (which serves more students from higher-income families) does not have that provision. Either make all students pee in a cup or don’t make anyone do it…what a gee whiz idea!

(3) The University of Texas-Tyler pulled the rug out from under accepted Nepalese students at the last minute. Beside from being a college president or a football or basketball coach, being in charge of enrollment management is one of the most visible and high-stakes jobs in higher education (plus, success is easily observed, unlike for most staff and faculty members). But the University of Texas at Tyler’s enrollment management director made a tremendous error by offering far too many full scholarships to international students. Rather than bite the bullet and cover the costs, UT-Tyler chose to revoke about 60 Nepalese students’ scholarships in mid-April. This rightly resulted in a PR nightmare for the university (the UT system belatedly apologized), and lesser-resourced colleges and the international counseling community stepped up to help many students. Time will tell whether this debacle affects UT-Tyler’s standing and admissions profile going forward.

(2) Adventures in research, part 2. As regular readers of my blog (or at least those who made it this far on this post) know, I’m not afraid to call out research that seems to feature dubious research methods. I was in a particularly grumpy mood one Monday morning when I stumbled across this “study” that was starting to get fawning coverage in the higher ed press.

Thanks to my grumpy tweets, I was able to talk with Chris Quintana of The Chronicle of Higher Education to air my concerns. He wrote a nice piece in which I was able to explain these issues to a broader audience, and I thought the story ended there. But boy, was I ever wrong! It turns out that the “expert” in the Bitcoin piece, Drew Cloud, was not a real person. Kudos to Chris and Dan Bauman from the Chronicle for exposing this creation of a corporate website.

(1) Let’s just say that 2018 was not a great year for big-time college athletics. If all was well with college athletics, I could use this space to highlight some of the more woeful teams out there (such as the University of Connecticut’s historically awful football defense and Rutgers volleyball’s 1-99 conference record since 2014). But instead, the main focus is on scandals at Maryland (where the board tried to fire the president over his efforts to fire a football coach who had a player die under his watch), Michigan State (where the former president now faces two felony charges over lying to police in the Larry Nassar scandal), and Ohio State (where the one trustee willing to stand up to retiring football coach Urban Meyer over his handling of a violent assistant coach resigned in protest). Sparty, please tell us what you think of college athletics this year!

(Dis)honorable mentions (courts division): Appalachian State University and Cape Cod Community College fell victim to fraudsters, a Florida Atlantic student tweeted a threat against his professor for scheduling a 7 AM exam, Teachers College’s former financial aid director was charged with fraud and bribery after running a student loan kickback scam, Temple’s MBA program faced student lawsuits after reporting phony data to US News.

(Dis)honorable mentions (non-courts division): Former Iranian president (!?!) weighs in on Michigan-Michigan State football rivalry, the Department of Education tries to make Freedom of Information Act requests as painful as possible, RateMyProfessors somehow let the ‘hotness’ chili pepper survive until June 2018, Oakland University hands out hockey pucks as a school shooting defense mechanism, online dating study shows men find women with a graduate degree to be less desirable (what year is this again?)

And with this post, I am taking my annual hiatus for winter break (unless something very important breaks in the meantime). Until then, I hope that all of my readers can enjoy some quiet time with friends and family and I will see you all in 2019!

Author: Robert

I am an a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who studies higher education finance, accountability policies and practices, and student financial aid. All opinions expressed here are my own.

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