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Professor who sought refuge from liberal academe at a Southern Baptist seminary finds out why tenure matters
It's rare for disaffected faculty members within the seminary world to speak out publicly against their institutions. But one now former professor’s tale of thinking that he’d finally found an intellectual home at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and then losing it, provides a rare window into that part of academe.
If the name Robert Oscar Lopez sounds familiar, it might be because he clashed with his prior institution, too. In 2015, Lopez, then an associate professor of English at California State University at Northridge, said that institution was targeting him because he disagreed with letting gay parents adopt children. He faced a related complaint that a conference he’d organized and invited students to attend pushed antigay views (he denied this).
Lopez held other views outside the conservative mainstream, such as that homosexuality was inexorably linked to pederasty. Some called it hate speech. He said he based his insights on personal experience, and that being raised by a bisexual mother and her female partner made him socially awkward and led him to the “gay underworld” for a time.
Eventually, Lopez left California and secular academe for Southwestern. The Texas institution doesn’t have tenure, but he thought he had found a permanent place among like-minded, socially conservative academics.
Things went well for Lopez for a while. But he couldn’t have predicted the events to come. In 2018, amid the Me Too movement, the seminary’s then president, Paige Patterson, was accused of covering up sexual abuse allegations within the Southern Baptist Convention. An earlier audio recording of Patterson counseling prayer to women with violent husbands also surfaced, as did reports that Patterson had gravely mishandled two rape cases involving woman at the seminary, in 2003 and in 2015.
Patterson first stepped down and was later removed as president emeritus. The seminary’s governing board announcement cited, among other missteps, an internal email in which Patterson wrote that he wanted to meet with the 2015 rape complainant alone to “break her down.”
The seminary did something of a house cleaning following Patterson’s departure, even removing a set of stained-glass windows honoring both him and the ultraconservative late Southern Baptist leader Jerry Falwell Sr. The panels found a new home at Liberty University, run by Jerry Falwell Jr., who commented at the time, “Well, now both of those windows have been removed by the new regime.” Southern Baptists must “have their own deep state,” he also quipped.
Sex Abuse Scandal Brings Change
The Southern Baptist community faced a larger sexual abuse crisis around the same time, with the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News reporting that the church had seen 700 victims over 20 years. As Lopez watched how the church responded from his seat at Southwestern, he believed that victims of same-sex abuse were being left out of the discussions.
In April, he published a resolution for church consideration that included antigay language, including that some unnamed Southern Baptist groups had erred in mixing with Anglican groups who encouraged young Baptists “to explore homosexuality and even attend prurient homosexual events.” Later in the document, Lopez resolved that any nondisclosure or “gentleman’s” agreements between victims and the church should be invalidated, in the interest of transparency and healing. The idea, in part, was that NDAs were preventing male victims of abuse from sharing their stories. (Lopez had previously pitched a resolution supporting the "unfettered right of pastors, churches, biblical counselors, biblical counseling ministries and any other disciple of Christ to provide sound biblical counsel and assistance for any person seeking freedom from the sinful bondage to disordered homosexual desires.")
Southwestern Baptist replaced Patterson with Adam W. Greenway, a 41-year-old former dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, in Kentucky. Greenway didn’t stop the cleaning house at stained glass. According to some accounts, including Lopez’s, Greenway pegged for termination or reassignment 26 professors soon after moving to Fort Worth.
Greenway may have been installed as an agent of progress, but the terminations sparked concerns that he was eliminating many of the seminary’s professors of color. The conservative Capstone Report counted, for example, that half of the affected professors were women or minorities. Southwestern Baptist cited budget concerns and academic program changes as reasons for the cuts. But it also hired some new faculty members and administrators, including a group of white men and some former of Greenway's former colleagues from Southern Baptist.
Lopez lost his job, too. In a blog post for American Greatness called “I Didn’t Have to Die on This Hill But I Did,” Lopez said the post-Patterson seminary gutted the classics and humanities curriculum he’d worked to build in favor of works in philosophy and theology.
“I found myself in the unenviable and painful position of now having to fight conservatives so they would see that 1) the classics included imaginative and creative texts, and 2) multicultural diversity mattered,” Lopez wrote. “I was now the dirty disobedient liberal. The fact that I organized missions to El Salvador, founded a multicultural drama club, and proposed a media arts and culture major with an African-American music professor hurt my standing rather than helped it.”
In September, Lopez says, the seminary’s provost asked him to resign. In November, he saw that he didn’t have any classes assigned to him for the spring. And then he received a formal letter of notice, relieving him of his duties as of Dec. 31.
The letter says only that Lopez’s position is being eliminated. And it’s possible that’s true. It’s also possible that Lopez ruffled too many feathers fighting for the humanities program in the face of change.
Home to Roost
But it’s more likely that his antigay comments caught up with him -- albeit in an unexpected place, at least to him.
Documents Lopez shared with the conservative Christian website Enemies Within the Church -- including emails and recordings of meetings with administrators, all after Patterson's ouster -- suggest that he was repeatedly asked to clear any public comments about homosexuality with the institution first. Those included social media posts and media requests, such as one seeking Lopez's comment on a study seeming to link homosexuality to youth self-harm.
“Notifying us after you’ve submitted the work will raise some concerns,” reads one September email from Michael Wilkinson, dean of the seminary’s Scarborough College. “Also, I’m not sure that [Provost Randy] Stinson understood you to mean that you would continue to speak on these issues. He understood you to mean taking down the social media stuff and then to focus on the drama club and your classes.”
Stinson tells Lopez in a recording of a separate September conversation that among the convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, “your reputation is not good there with those folks.”
Lopez says that he was targeted for trying to shine light on the same-sex abuse cases that he says don’t fit into what he’s described as the Baptist Church’s Me Too-oriented framing of its sex abuse scandal. As evidence, he cites a transcript of a meeting with Stinson in which Stinson acknowledges that he’d previously expressed concern about his resolution. It’s unclear from the transcript, however, if Stinson had a problem with the resolution because of antigay language or the NDA issue, or even which resolution he was talking about.
In a brief interview, Lopez said, “I was fired because I wanted to bring light to the problems of sex abuse and sexual suffering that the convention was trying to keep secret.”
He also wrote on his blog that his "testimony encouraged people to see themselves as God defined them rather than accept the 'born this way' myth so popular among gay activists. The seminary did not want the attention brought by this issue. So I was fired for sharing the gospel."
In an unusual public statement, Stinson said that “Lopez’s claims about what I have personally said about these matters are demonstrably false.” Stinson affirmed his support for “biblical sexuality,” saying that “in light of the growing cultural confusion on sexuality and growing pressure to force Christians to conform to prevailing opinions, my resolve on these matters is stronger today than ever.”
While Lopez’s position is being eliminated “due to changing program needs of our college,” Stinson continued, “our decision was undergirded by his own actions, which included his failure to comply with basic administrative policies, his being the subject of regular complaints from students and faculty colleagues, and, in the end, his refusal even to attend meetings with his supervisors.”
He added, "Let me be absolutely clear: no faculty member, including Dr. Lopez, has been told, or would be told, they cannot discuss homosexuality."
In any case, things continue to change at the seminary. This fall it publicly affirmed its support for two female faculty members working in women’s theology, following an email from Patterson’s former chief of staff questioning their qualifications. And elsewhere in the seminary world, Karen Swallow, a longtime professor of English at Liberty University and a vocal critic of President Trump, recently announced that she is leaving that institution for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina. In so doing, she cited concerns about academic freedom at Liberty and an interest in Southeastern's more "traditional" curriculum. Swallow had previously endorsed a controversial 2018 gathering, Revoice, for gay Christians who agree with Baptist teachings about sexuality. Lopez had criticized her for doing so.
Things, of course, are changing for Lopez, too. To many, his story will read as a just-deserts morality tale. Others may sympathize with his position -- voiced in a recent podcast -- that administrative doublespeak is worse in the seminary world than it is in secular academe. Some may put a finer point on it all: that homophobia is a professional liability just about anywhere in academe.
As Lopez wrote in his American Greatness essay, “Just like that, I went from tenure in California to joblessness in Texas.”FacultyReligious CollegesEditorial Tags: Academic freedomFacultyImage Caption: Robert LopezIs this diversity newsletter?: Newsletter Order: 0Disable left side advertisement?: Is this Career Advice newsletter?: Magazine treatment: Trending: Display Promo Box:
When Georgia Southern University administrators sent out a campuswide email last week outlining the university's commitment to racial inclusion and equity, it may have been cause for approval and praise. After all, the Inclusive Excellence statement was being codified as "the central pillar" of the university's new strategic plan.
Instead, the timing was seen by students as a suspect and cynical move by the university to quell complaints and criticisms, which started the day before, about the administration's defense of a class presentation that promoted a popular white supremacist theory.
The presentation by a student named Charles Robertson came on the heels of a book-burning protest by some white students on campus who took umbrage with an author's reading and discussion of her novel about a Hispanic student's experience at an elite American college. The book was required reading for some first-year students. The burnings took place in October after the Latina author spoke on campus about white privilege. The students involved were also defended by university administrators as expressing their free speech rights.
Some students now believe the defense of the book burning opened the door for Robertson to promote a xenophobic, white supremacist ideology during a class presentation, said Daniela Rodriguez, 25, a Mexican immigrant who graduated from the university in May.
“He feels safe to speak up, and now I can only imagine how many more are out there with this racist mentality of hate,” said Rodriguez, who is the lead organizer for the Savannah Undocumented Youth Alliance, or SUYA, which advocates for the rights of undocumented immigrants in Georgia.
“Now they feel very comfortable, very brave to do something worse,” Rodriguez said. “The administration should do something before something else happens.”
Robertson did a PowerPoint presentation on replacement theory on Nov. 15 in his freshman English composition class. The theory is popular among white supremacist groups and posits that falling white birth rates around the world will result in the replacement, and eventual extinction, of white people by people of color. Robertson railed against the immigration policies of Western countries, which he said strategically populate European countries with nonwhite immigrants from the developing countries to compensate for declining white birth rates.
“While it is difficult to hear presentations with which we vehemently disagree, we must uphold the Constitution of the United States,” a statement from the university said. “It is even more reason why we at Georgia Southern University must continue our unwavering commitment to equity and inclusion.”
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, describes replacement theory as “sugarcoated” racism that plays on the fear that white people will ultimately be replaced entirely by nonwhites.
“They’ll take real trends that are occurring … various demographic changes, and try to paint it fictionally as some kind of existential threat,” Levin said.
He noted that the conspiracy has been promulgated in the manifestos of mass shooters who target immigrant groups and said it’s concerning that it's now being spread in a college class. The replacement theory idea was echoed by the man who targeted Latinos and killed 22 people in an El Paso, Tex., Walmart in August, and by a mass shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, who killed more than 50 Muslim worshippers in a mosque in March, Levin said.
Jasmine Anderson, a senior at Georgia Southern who is African American, said allowing Robertson to promote such ideas on campus “could encourage someone who agrees with whatever was said in that presentation to act violently. I’m sure there’s all types of groups who are probably looking up to the person who has the balls to say something in class as some form of motivation and empowerment … It is alarming that something of that caliber is being tolerated. It’s coming quite close to terroristic.”
Robertson recorded and posted his presentation on YouTube on Nov. 16. It had nearly 100,000 views as of Dec. 9 and was praised by thousands of commenters. He did not respond to a request for comment.
Robertson also tweeted a link to the video in a thread where he encouraged followers to “Join AIM,” or the American Identity Movement, which is an active alt-right white supremacist group, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
My argumentative presentation @GeorgiaSouthern for my comp class. Subject is Replacement #migration a @UN policy. The last minute didn't record for some reason.#college#GroyperWars@NickJFuentes let's take 'em to school.https://t.co/dKyjo5pk5o— Charles (@TheRealIrreplac) November 20, 2019
Join AIM— Charles (@TheRealIrreplac) November 21, 2019
AIM is the “reincarnation” of Identity Evropa, the alt-right group that participated in the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., Levin said. The group traditionally targets young men on college campuses with papering campaigns. AIM has lately been increasing its presence on campuses, Levin said.
“Along with a diversification of population, we’re seeing depression at elevated levels in recent years of people entering college and studying there,” he said. “They’re susceptible to being manipulated, not only to racist messages but to any conspiracy that has some appeal, how it’s packaged in a way that’s comfortable for young people.”
Robertson’s presentation was for an assignment on a topic of the student’s choice, said John Lester, Georgia Southern's vice president for strategic communications. While the original presentation took place in a classroom, “the promotion of it, use of it, explanation of it, spreading of it, and the association of it with certain ideologies and movements were all done on social media by the student,” Lester wrote in an email.
“What he did with his assignment outside the classroom is beyond the control or reach of the university,” the university's statement said. “While individuals are free to express their views, these views in no way align with the values and statements of diversity and inclusion at Georgia Southern University.”
Those values are outlined in the university's Inclusive Excellence statement, which is touted as a "center pillar" and "core value" of its new strategic plan. The statement is a commitment to ensure all diverse groups of students, staff and faculty members on campus are respected and valued, according to the university’s website. Georgia Southern’s administration worked for 10 months with the National Inclusive Excellence Leadership Academy to incorporate diversity and inclusion goals into the strategic plan and leadership positions.
“I know they have had a number of new challenges occur this fall,” said Damon Williams, who leads the academy. “Those things are damaging and painful for the community more broadly.”
Williams noted that Kyle Marrero, Georgia Southern's president since April, has made it a priority to improve the campus climate for students of color since his arrival.
"The reality is, you can move forward with your efforts, but that doesn’t mean the world has changed," Williams said.
Anderson pointed out that Marrero and Provost Carl Reiber sent an email to students and faculty members informing them of the final language of the Inclusive Excellence pledge on Dec. 3, one day after students began speaking out about Robertson’s presentation on social media. The email summarized the university’s “unwavering commitment to diversity and inclusion” without mentioning Robertson's presentation.
“It’s too coincidental that they sent it [that day] and it doesn’t apply to the actions that occurred on campus, or how things are handled on campus,” she said. “It’s too general and not very action-based … Those are just words. That doesn’t mean you believe it, that doesn’t mean it holds true to the climate on this campus and it doesn’t mean you’re acting on it.”
For his part, Robertson spoke directly against the inclusive excellence pledge in his presentation.
“‘Diversity is our strength’ is a bare-faced lie,” he said. “I don’t care if you call me a racist.”
Lauren Krapf, national policy counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, said it's important for university and college professors to determine the effectiveness of such presentations in the classrooms and to spur thoughtful conversations and enhance learning.
"While there is absolutely a First Amendment right to speech on public university campuses, the classroom is not an appropriate place for white nationalist recruitment," she said. "It is incumbent on the university and professors to make determinations about how presentations, conversations and assignments on controversial topics are handled -- with an eye toward advancing the educational purpose of a particular assignment or course offering."
The most Georgia Southern can do within the law as a public university is to tell stakeholders this does not reflect the university’s views and remind them of First Amendment freedoms, said Robert Shibley, executive director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, an advocacy group for students’ due process and speech rights.
“It’s not fair to hold a college accountable for what a student says,” Shibley said. “For people who say Georgia Southern is at fault here, it’s erroneous and misguided … The way to fight bad speech is to have more speech.”
Levin said Georgia Southern should use the presentation as a teaching opportunity to elevate ideas that debunk Robertson’s white supremacist theories and encourage the campus to “come together morally and intellectually.”
After the book-burning incident, Marrero and other administrators held a forum for students to express concerns. Faculty members in the English department also lectured about the history of book burning, according to FIRE.
Both Anderson and Rodriguez said some students of color don’t feel safe speaking out, and they doubt doing so will change the behavior of students with racist views or the way the university handles them.
After the book-burning incident, students issued a statement and held a walk-out, but Anderson said she did not participate because she did not trust the university to protect the protesters.
“That’s really a problem,” Rodriguez said. “Students of color don’t feel safe speaking up, but white supremacists feel safe.”Editorial Tags: Racial groupsGeorgiaStudent lifeImage Source: Jonathan M. Chick / Georgia Southern UniversityImage Caption: Students, faculty members and administrators attend a lecture by the Georgia Southern English department after a book-burning incident in October.Is this diversity newsletter?: Newsletter Order: 0Disable left side advertisement?: Is this Career Advice newsletter?: Magazine treatment: Trending: College: Georgia Southern UniversityDisplay Promo Box:
The U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the University of Phoenix have agreed to a multimillion-dollar settlement relating to a long-running investigation by the FTC into whether the university engaged in deceptive advertising.
Under the settlement announced today by the commission, Phoenix and its private investment group owners will owe the FTC roughly $50 million in cash while forgiving another $140 million in fees owed to the university by former students who allegedly were harmed by the ads. The agreement does not include an admission of wrongdoing by Phoenix.
"This is the largest settlement the commission has obtained in a case against a for-profit school," Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said in a statement. "Students making important decisions about their education need the facts, not fantasy job opportunities that do not exist."
The university said in a written statement that it was pleased to have reached the settlement and to have resolved the investigation, adding that it had complied fully with the FTC.
"The campaign occurred under prior ownership and concluded before the FTC’s inquiry began," the statement said. "The university continues to believe it has acted appropriately and has admitted no wrongdoing. This settlement agreement will enable the university to maintain focus on its core mission of improving the lives of students through career-relevant higher education, and to avoid any further distraction from serving students that could have resulted from protracted litigation, as well as the time and expense of the litigation itself."
The investigation was first announced in July 2015 by Phoenix, which then was a publicly traded company worth more than $3 billion. Since then the university has changed owners and is now a subsidiary of Apollo Global Management, a private firm. The university’s enrollment also has declined during the last four years and is now below 100,000 students, although sources said Phoenix appears to have stabilized in recent months.
In a corporate filing, the university’s then-holding company said the civil investigative demand focused on whether Phoenix engaged in “deceptive or unfair” forms of advertising and marketing.
The FTC called on the university to release a wide range of documents and information about its business practices. The demand covered “marketing, recruiting, enrollment, financial aid, tuition and fees, academic programs, academic advising, student retention, billing and debt collection, complaints, accreditation, training, military recruitment and other compliance matters, for the time period of January 1, 2011 to the present,” the former company said in 2015.
Claims in Commercials
However, the settlement appeared to focus on several television and radio advertisements that Phoenix ran from 2012 until early 2014.
“The companies’ ads featured employers such as Microsoft, Twitter, Adobe and Yahoo!, giving the false impression that UoP worked with those companies to create job opportunities for its students and tailor its curriculum for such jobs,” the FTC said Tuesday. “In reality, these companies did not partner with UoP to provide special job opportunities for UoP students or develop curriculum. Instead, UoP and Apollo selected these companies for their advertisements as part of a marketing strategy to drive prospective student interest, the FTC alleges.”
Several of the ads in question are available on a YouTube channel hosted by the university.
One television commercial describes how Phoenix is working with a “growing list of almost 2,000 corporate partners, companies like Microsoft, American Red Cross and Adobe, to create options for you,” the narrator said, as the video depicts a middle-aged black woman driving through a crowded parking lot. Logos for several other large employers appear during the ad.
“Not only that, we’re using what we learned from these partners to shape our curriculum. So that when you find the job you want, you’ll be a perfect fit. Let’s get to work,” the narrator concludes as the woman finds a parking spot.
A radio commercial from the same time period featured a similar message.
“In business, getting your foot in the door is half the battle. So University of Phoenix works with leading companies interested in our students and alumni,” the ad’s narrator said. “For our school of business students, we connect with companies like AT&T, Sodexo and Adobe, so you will have more than just a foot in the door. Learn more at Phoenix.edu. Let’s get to work.”
In some ways, the settlement announced today resembles one DeVry University agreed to with the FTC for $100 million in December 2016. (DeVry’s former parent company, now called Adtalem Global Education, a year later sold its flagship university to a small, private for-profit college company.)
That investigation centered on advertising claims made by DeVry about its former students’ employment statistics. Specifically, the FTC probed whether the university was being misleading in marketing to prospective students that, since 1975, 90 percent of its graduates were employed in their field of study within six months of graduation. The ads in question also claimed DeVry’s graduates had 15 percent higher incomes one year after graduation, on average, than did the graduates of other colleges or universities.
A former FTC official, speaking on background, said the DeVry ad claims were stronger than those made in the Phoenix ads, which featured "implied claims" with weaker takeaways.
In addition, the DeVry ads continued to run up to the point of the university’s settlement with the commission. The Phoenix ads last ran five or more years ago, when the company had different owners.
The FTC’s mandate for pursuing deceptive advertising only covers for-profit colleges. It does not apply to nonprofit institutions, including large online universities that increasingly have competed with and eaten into enrollments of for-profit colleges.
To cross the line with marketing to prospective students, the former commission official said advertising claims have to move people to make a decision, which is hard to prove. And the FTC has the burden of proof with such allegations.
The official said the almost five-year gestation of the commission’s investigation of Phoenix, "if not unprecedented," is "close to it."
The FTC, however, said the ads from the university “falsely touted their relationships and job opportunities” with specific companies.
“The defendants also misrepresented that companies, such as Adobe, American Red Cross, Avis, AT&T, MGM, Microsoft, Newell Rubbermaid, Sodexo and Twitter, worked with UoP to develop its courses,” according to the FTC’s complaint.
The commission also said the university’s deceptive advertising and marketing materials targeted military and Hispanic consumers.
The $50 million cash payment to the FTC will be used for “consumer redress,” the commission said. And the $141 million in debt cancellation will go to former students who first enrolled during the time period consumers were likely exposed to the ads in question.
The commission’s vote authorizing the complaint and the final order was 4 to 0, with one commissioner recusing herself.
Rohit Chopra is an FTC commissioner and former assistant director and student loan ombudsman at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He said on Twitter that many of Phoenix’s students “leave with a mountain of debt and few career prospects.”
Chopra suggested that the federal government’s pursuit of for-profit colleges would continue.
“Today's action against University of Phoenix and future actions against scam schools will set the stage for canceling more student debt and terminating bad-actor access to valuable government benefits,” Chopra said.For-Profit Higher EdEditorial Tags: Breaking NewsFederal policyFor-profit collegesImage Source: YouTubeImage Caption: Image from U of Phoenix television commercialIs this diversity newsletter?: Newsletter Order: 0Disable left side advertisement?: Is this Career Advice newsletter?: Magazine treatment: Trending: Display Promo Box:
Un niño superdotado de nueve años deja la universidad por una disputa entre sus padres y el rectorado
The upward trajectory of college completion rates is slowing down, according to the latest national college completion report.
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found in its latest annual data report on college completion that, while completion rates have been on the rise for each cohort year beginning with the group who entered college in 2009, the growth is slowing.
While that's troubling, higher education advocates say the general message is positive.
"To me, the important part of this is the direction that we’re moving," said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs for the American Council on Education. It's possible institutions made significant progress in the first few years by choosing "the lowest-hanging fruits," he said, and further progress will be more difficult to achieve.
The report follows the pathways of first-time college students and stays with them even if they transfer. This year's report analyzes the outcomes for students who enrolled in 2013, as well as the eight-year results for those who enrolled in 2011. It is the most comprehensive assessment of completion data available for the sector.
Six-year completion rates are up across all sectors, but those who started in private, for-profit, four-year colleges had the biggest jump in completion, increasing from 37.3 percent to 42.4 percent.
"While we want to celebrate the increase in completion, it is lower than it has been in previous years," said Courtney Brown, vice president of strategic impact at the Lumina Foundation. "I think we have to figure out a way to be better."
The report also found that more students from the 2011 cohort completed college during their seventh and eighth years. The eight-year completion rate for that group was five percentage points higher than the six-year completion rate, which Brown said may be indicative of students who are attending part-time. Given that, she said, institutions need to address how long it takes to earn a credential if you must attend part-time.
Compared to previous cohorts, students who enrolled in 2013 were more likely to be of traditional college-going age, 20 or younger, while the proportion of adult learners over the age of 25 declined by almost one percentage point.
While their numbers may be declining, adult learners saw their completion rates increase by more than two percentage points. The rate for traditional-age students also increased, but by just 1.2 percentage points.
"Nontraditional students seem to be making especially rapid gains," Hartle said. "I think what we see there are efforts being made by institutions that serve nontraditional students."
Enrollment at four-year institutions increased slightly, the report found, while enrollment at two-year colleges decreased. This is likely at least partially due to the countercyclical effects of the economy on community college enrollments, according to Hartle; when unemployment is high, more people tend to enroll in two-year colleges to finish degrees or gain more skills to increase their employability, and vice versa.
While racial and ethnic completion rate gaps still persist, the report found some improvement, though advocates said it's not enough.
"There are still significant racial and ethnic disparities in terms of who completes college," said Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education at the Education Trust. "While there have been some gains in college completion among African American men, it’s not enough.
Despite the gains in completion over all, about 40 percent of students -- around one million -- are still leaving college without a credential.
"The bigger concern with that 40 percent is they’re more likely to be adults, more likely to be at two-year institutions, more likely to be students of color," Brown said. "These are the students we have to think about how we can better support."
It's especially concerning given the National Student Clearinghouse report released in October, which found that 36 million adults have some college credits but no degree, she said. "If we continue to lose a million more a year, that's a problem."
Another recession could further complicate matters with completion. The increase in completion rates was highest between 2009 and 2011, which the report states reflects a "post-recession effect" on the size and composition of the student population. Another economic downturn likely would increase enrollment, Brown said, but negatively impact completion, as students leave college to work when the economy improves.
"If and when we get another recession, the higher education system needs to be much better prepared to help these new enrollees get a credential of value faster," she said. "We have to think about how we can better support those students now."
While there are things institutions can do to help students succeed, they usually have a "marginal" effect, according to Hartle. From his perspective, college completion is a combination of three things: academic preparedness, commitment and financial resources.
To improve student success, work has to be done earlier in education to improve academic preparation. The latest national test results show modest gains, he said, and students who are underprepared often have to take remedial courses, which makes them less likely to complete a degree. If students do persist, they often later run into problems with financial resources, he added.
"There’s good news here, but in no way can people be satisfied that we solved the problem," he said, later adding, "It's a multifaceted problem. Those are the most difficult to solve."Editorial Tags: Adult educationGraduation ratesImage Source: Istockphoto.com/Aaron HawkinsIs this diversity newsletter?: Newsletter Order: 0Disable left side advertisement?: Is this Career Advice newsletter?: Magazine treatment: Trending: Display Promo Box:
Read the court documents in the cases of the individuals who pleaded guilty to recruiting students to the University of Farmington -- a fake university set up by a division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as part of a sting operation to catch visa fraudsters -- and you’ll notice a pattern.
A number of the “recruiters” turned to Farmington after the colleges they attended lost accreditation, or, to put it more precisely, when the U.S. Department of Education revoked recognition for the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools in December 2016, leaving them and about 16,000 other international students enrolled at institutions without federally recognized accreditation (ACICS’s recognition has since been reinstated).
The students, all citizens of India, subsequently enrolled at Farmington. They began recruiting their friends and collecting commissions from the fake university, which had no classes and no professors and was staffed with federal agents.
One of the "recruiters," Santosh Reddy Sama -- whom the government describes in court documents as "the greatest driving force behind the enormity of the fraud" -- claims in court documents he received an email from Farmington “almost immediately” after his previous institution lost accreditation.
“Without the original email targeted to Mr. Sama after his school, Silicon [Valley] University lost accreditation, we may not be here in this case,” says the defendant’s sentencing memo. Sama, who was accused by the government of making more than $150,000 by recruiting students to Farmington, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit visa fraud and to harbor aliens for profit, and was sentenced to prison for two years.
“The day after the schools were disaccredited, ICE, which is running this scam university, sent emails to all of these students, soliciting them,” said David S. Steingold, the lawyer for another individual convicted in the case, Bharath Kakireddy. Kakireddy was enrolled in Silicon Valley University and came to Farmington looking for what Steingold describes as a "stopgap" solution to maintain his immigration status after the ACICS revocation. (Kakireddy subsequently gained admission to New England College, and on Jan. 11 -- about three weeks before the indictments in the case were unsealed -- requested a transfer, according to court documents. The government claims that Kakireddy collected at least $32,000 in fees from fellow "students" he recruited to Farmington. He pleaded guilty and received an 18-month prison sentence.)
"It was almost as if it was planned," Steingold said. "It was almost as if they knew when the schools lost their accreditation there’d be thousands and thousands of people here on a student visa from outside the country who are going to be looking for status, who are going to be desperate to stay in the country, because if you have to go back to India, apply there and start the whole process again, suffice it to say it’s going to be a significant disruption of their studies. Since most of them had work-study, they were desperate not just to stay in school, but to stay in their job.”
Inside Higher Ed asked in writing whether ICE investigators targeted Farmington recruiting emails to students at ACICS-accredited institutions following the revocation of ACICS's recognition by the Department of Education. A spokesman for the agency, Carissa Cutrell, did not address the question directly.
"[Homeland Security Investigations] special agents use a variety of law enforcement tactics to uncover exploitation of the student visa system," she said in response to Inside Higher Ed's query. "Students should evaluate all aspects of a school’s offerings before making a decision to enroll."
Cutrell added that, with the exception of English language programs, institutions that lost accreditation through ACICS would still have been eligible to retain their federal certification through the Student and Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP) to enroll international students if they submitted additional required documentation in lieu of accreditation.
Several defendants in the case (including Kakireddy) say in court documents that they had just 15 days to transfer to another institution after the ACICS decision or otherwise risk violating their visa status. Cutrell said that after the ACICS decision, SEVP "did not take immediate action but rather notified students to work with their school's designated school officials to take appropriate action to maintain status." She added that typically when an institution loses its certification to enroll international students, the students would have 30 to 60 days to transfer to another institution. A broadcast message from ICE's Student and Exchange Visitor Program issued in December 2016 indicated that the agency was following the Education's Department's timeline, which gave ACICS-accredited institutions 18 months to find a new accreditor in order to remain eligible for federal aid programs.
In any case, it seems fair to say there may have been confusion about the implications of loss of accreditation on students' visa statuses. And accreditation would have been a critical and time-sensitive factor for students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields with aspirations to work in the U.S. after graduation through the optional practical training (OPT) program. Only students who attend an accredited institution are eligible to apply for the two-year STEM OPT extension, which extends the total OPT period from one year to three. In order to be eligible for the STEM OPT extension, international students must attend an institution that is accredited at the time of their application to the program.
The government’s decision to create a fake university to capture individuals who would seek to abuse the student visa system has been highly controversial. The Farmington operation began in 2015, under the Obama administration, and was prosecuted under the Trump administration.
Some have argued that in creating a fake university that had all the exterior trappings of legitimacy -- Farmington advertised all the appropriate accreditation and regulatory approvals -- the government deceived vulnerable students and preyed on their desperation to stay in the U.S. On Twitter, Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren described the sting operation as "cruel and appalling. These students simply dreamed of getting the high-quality higher education America can offer. ICE deceived and entrapped them, just to deport them."
"The notion of solving this problem by creating a fake university, take in millions and lie to students is not acceptable," said Ben Miller, the vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.
"What was the point of this? If you’re worried about schools that aren't real schools, why don’t you go after the accreditors and make sure they're doing a real job policing academic quality?"
ICE defends the creation of a sham university -- the second such Potemkin institution it has created, after the University of Northern New Jersey -- as a legitimate tactic to protect the integrity of the student visa program. Federal authorities describe Farmington as a "pay-to-stay" operation: the "students" paid tuition in order to maintain their immigration status and obtain work authorization, but they were not legitimate students.
"The primary purpose of this operation was to better understand the ways in which recruiters and others abuse the nonimmigrant student visa system," Cutrell said. "HSI [Homeland Security Investigations] special agents made it abundantly clear in their interactions with potential University of Farmington enrollees that the school did not offer academic or vocational programs of any kind. The enrollees came from other U.S. schools and not directly from overseas, so they were familiar with the student visa process and requirements and were free to remain at their current institution or find another school that provided programs of study."
"Undercover schools provide a unique perspective in understanding the ways in which students and recruiters try to exploit the nonimmigrant student visa system," Cutrell continued. "They provide DHS firsthand evidence of fraud and enhance the agency’s understanding of the way in which exploitation networks develop to facilitate fraud. This, in turn, informs and improves DHS’s efforts to uncover fraud at schools and serves as a deterrent to potential violators and as a reminder to all nonimmigrant students to be vigilant in complying with pertinent laws while studying in the United States."
Those caught up in the Farmington case fall into two main categories.
There were the eight “recruiters” who made a profit either in the form of tuition credits or cash for recruiting students to Farmington. The majority of them were enrolled in the university themselves and made cash or collected credits toward their tuition by recruiting more "students" like them.
Then were the hundreds of other "students" who enrolled in the fake university but were not accused of profiting by recruiting others.
The “recruiters” were criminally charged and faced jail time, to be followed by deportation. All have pleaded guilty. Of the seven sentenced so far, all have received a sentence of at least a year and a day in jail, a sentence that under current immigration law will bar them from re-entering the U.S. in the future.
The "students," meanwhile, faced deportation for immigration violations. The Detroit Free Press reported late last month that immigration authorities arrested about 250 people in connection with their enrollment at Farmington. Many were deported to India, while others are contesting their removals. One was granted lawful permanent resident status by an immigration judge.
Emily Neumann, an immigration lawyer based in Houston, has advised anywhere between 25 to 50 students, in most cases giving them informal advice on how to voluntarily depart the country. She said the story of nearly every student she advised is the same: the students attended master’s programs in the U.S., then started working through the OPT program. They applied for an H-1B skilled worker visa to extend their stay beyond the one- to three-year period provided by OPT. But their application either wasn't selected via the lottery or was denied for some reason.
"They're coming to the end of their OPT time; they feel they have no other choice -- if they re-enroll in a program they can continue their stay and maybe start again next year," she said. "Then they’re starting to get information about Farmington University -- that not only will they be able to re-enroll to continue their stay, they’ll be able to continue to work."
“When something sounds too good to be true, it probably is, so they probably had an idea that something was off,” Neumann said. “But when you’ve got -- the school on its website looks legitimate, you’ve got an I-20 form that is properly issued [an I-20 being the government form that institutions issue to prospective international students], it’s saying that it’s accredited and authorized to grant F-1 [student] visas. On paper everything looked right. I don’t think any of them that we worked with were specifically going to Farmington knowing that they wouldn’t have to take any classes, but I think that they’re going there for the work authorization and for the continued ability to stay, and it ultimately turned out there weren’t any classes being given. When you’ve got friends telling you that this is a good option, you’re kind of desperate at that point, and desperate people do things that a reasonable person might not do.”
Neumann added that her law partner, Rahul Reddy, "heard from a number of [Silicon Valley University] students that they were contacted almost immediately after ACICS lost its ability to accredit by recruiters, brokers and agents for Farmington."
No ‘Leg to Stand On’?
The majority of the eight "recruiters" who were criminally charged in the case enrolled in Farmington after attending either Silicon Valley University, which was shut down by California state regulators in 2018, or Northwestern Polytechnic University, according to court documents.
In a 2018 letter, U.S. senator Chuck Grassley described both Silicon Valley and Northwestern Polytechnic institutions as two “highly suspect schools” that bring international students to the U.S. Grassley cited “multiple credible reports suggesting that NPU operates a visa mill.” Both institutions were accredited by ACICS at the time the accreditor lost recognition.
Four of the eight individuals indicted in this case previously attended Northwestern Polytechnic, according to court documents, When asked to comment for this article, a lawyer for NPU, Harmeet K. Dhillon, sent a letter requesting that Inside Higher Ed not include the institution in an article about Farmington, arguing that its inclusion would "unfairly cast a negative light on our client’s institution, mislead readers, and immediately damage NPU."
"As an initial and critical matter, seeing as NPU has no affiliation with the University of Farmington, and for obvious reasons desires no such relationship, we see no legitimate basis to include discussion of NPU in such an article. Indeed, several other media outlets -- including The New York Times, USA Today, and Newsweek -- recently published articles regarding the University of Farmington without any mention of NPU, which is the appropriate choice, particularly in light of the intense negative reactions that the University of Farmington has garnered in both the media and the public eye. While a few outlets have mentioned NPU’s prior student, Prem Rampeesa [one of the eight individuals charged in the case], in discussing the University of Farmington, most have chosen to voluntarily remove or limit references to NPU after we contacted them to explain the falsity of certain claims regarding NPU."
Dhillon added, "Claims that NPU is a 'visa mill' are simply untrue, as evident from the actions of numerous credible agencies and accrediting bodies and, more specifically, on the findings of these agencies and bodies that authorize NPU to fully operate." In addition to its continued accreditation by ACICS and its certification by the state of California to operate, Dhillon noted that NPU recently received candidacy status from the Western Association for Schools and Colleges, the regional accreditor for colleges in California.
Tanul Thakur, a New Delhi-based journalist working on a nonfiction book on Indian H-1B workers, said institutions like NPU and (the recently shutdown) SVU are popular in India as a way for students to maintain their immigration status and work through the curricular practical training (CPT) program if they don't get picked in the H-1B lottery. Thakur said "the list of 15 to 20 questionable institutions is well-known among Indian students. So if one college shuts or gets raided, or comes under heavy scrutiny, then they simply move to the next dubious institution."
"The migratory patterns of students in Farmington -- moving to a 'fake university' from questionable institutions, known to enroll a disproportionate number of international students (and, in essence, purportedly functioning as 'visa mills') -- easily proves that a majority of students knew what they were getting into by signing up as students at Farmington," Thakur said.
In court documents, U.S. attorneys dismissed the idea that one of the defendants in the Farmington case was motivated by a desire “to help foreign national students obtain an education -- including for some students who sought to transfer from schools that were in danger of losing their accreditation."
The government added, in a footnote, "These schools cater to 'students' who want to exploit our foreign student education program. While they are the exception rather than the rule, unfortunately they do exist. Some of the 'pay to stay' schools located around the United States that have been exposed over the years are: Prodee University; Neo-America Language School; Walter Jay M.D. Institute; the American College of Forensic Studies; Likie Fashion and Technology College; Tri-Valley University; Herguan University; the University of Northern Virginia; and the American College of Commerce and Technology." Also in this same footnote, the government linked to a 2016 BuzzFeed article about Northwestern Polytechnic that bore the headline "Inside the College That Abolished the F and Raked in the Cash." (NPU's lawyer wrote that the BuzzFeed article was "riddled with inaccuracies.")
David North, who tracks student visa policy in his capacity as a senior fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that advocates for lowering immigration, said of those enrolled in Farmington that they "do not have a leg to stand on."
"If you claimed legal status in the country because you are a student and the organization you went to had never taught you a class, how do you say, 'gee, I’m innocent?'" he asked. "Those folks knew [that] they were getting involved in a nonexistent organization, or it was a university without classes. I can’t be very sympathetic to them."
That said, North suggested law resources could be used to crack down on actual colleges that might be questionable. "One of the things that they might do at considerable less expense is grit their teeth and go after the marginal ones," North said.
"I don’t criticize this sting, but I wish the same kinds of energies were used against these marginal operations."Editorial Tags: International higher educationImage Caption: The University of Farmington logoIs this diversity newsletter?: Newsletter Order: 0Disable left side advertisement?: Is this Career Advice newsletter?: Magazine treatment: Trending: Display Promo Box:
English professor Richard Burt is a big fan of books. Like, a really big fan of books. So much so he owns over 2,000 and has checked out 728 books from the University of Florida library, doubling the faculty checkout limit of 350.
As a tenured professor of English at Florida -- where he’s been since 2003 -- he is constantly creating new classes and is in the process of writing multiple books. Because of this, Burt makes frequent trips to the campus library, where he knows every librarian by name.
And this got Burt into a bit of trouble. First the library came collecting. Then he was made to sign a letter of reprimand for his interactions with the library staff.
During summer 2019, he received a notice that he needed to return some of his prized books by Oct. 1, as he was over the faculty limit of 350. He was informed he would not be able to check out more books until he returned to proper parameters for faculty. Burt said he had been told by another librarian that he could check out more books than that, as a special exception to the rule.
When Burt received this notice, he wrote to the chair of his department, Sid Dobrin, about the matter. Dobrin told Burt this was a library matter and to contact the library representatives directly. Dobrin did not respond to a request for comment.
Burt -- who is 65 -- said that due to the different training he received on how to conduct research and the fact that many of the texts he uses are so old they’ve never been digitized, he must rely on old-fashioned methods to conduct his academic work.
“He was initially given some leeway by the chair of Library West, at his request, since he was working on several books at the time,” said Patrick Reakes, senior associate dean of scholarly resources and services. “It was never indicated that there would be no limit at all -- the approval was to go over the 350 limit if necessary since he was right at the top edge and the staff at the desk kept having to ask permission and/or get a supervisor to override our system since it doesn’t allow staff to exceed the limit.” (Library West is the main library on the UF campus.)
Reakes said that the excessive amount of books that were checked out had led to hours of wasted staff time and confusion.
“Keeping track of that many books, along with the recalls by other patrons, became unwieldy,” said Reakes. “Both the patron and our circulation staff were wasting a lot of time searching for books that hadn’t ever been returned, etc.”
“In addition, it seemed important to enforce the policy uniformly across all faculty members,” Reakes continued. “The initial approval to go over the limit was intended as short-term assistance for the faculty member. I’d point out that we have over 15,000 faculty patron records in our system, many with very high levels of publication and research, and no other patrons had over 325 items checked out. I’ve been at UF almost 20 years, and I don’t recall the limit ever being a problem before.”
The UF library has roughly 6.2 million volumes.
The library caps faculty checkouts at 350 items, with the opportunity for a one-click renewal twice a year. This allows participants to renew all their books at once.
According to Reakes, the library compares its faculty limit to other large research libraries, and based on a review they did earlier this year, they found they’re around the “middle of the pack.”
Burt said that he feels the decision to limit faculty to 350 books is arbitrary and notes that faculty at Florida State University have a limit of 500.
Burt has been accused of bullying and berating library staff both in person and by phone and email. These alleged incidents have spanned the past few years, and these exchanges were related to the number of books the professor checked out.
When Burt was called in to meet with his chair, Dobrin, and associate dean Mary Watt on Oct. 7, he said he had “no idea” he would be getting a letter of reprimand. He wondered then as he wonders now: why does it matter that he was over the allotted limit of books he could check out? At this point he had already returned some of the books as requested.
The reprimand cited an instance in late November 2017 and requested that Burt change his email signature. The email signature that Dobrin and Watt found fault in described Burt as “legacy professor of English, loser studies, pharmakonology, and cosmic criticism.”
“The whole thing is very bizarre,” said Burt. “It was like being in a court of law … It was already done.” He felt like there was no due process, and that he never had the chance to explain himself.
The November incident took place at the library. Burt went to check out yet another book when he was told by library staff that this was no longer allowed. Burt demanded to speak to a higher-up librarian, who told Burt a similar thing and cited “policy” as the reasoning behind this. Burt said this made him feel “incredulous.”
According to incident reports from that day, Burt began to scream at the library staff and made them uncomfortable. Burt acknowledges that he did raise his voice. The incident reports say that university police were called, but they informed the staff members that the only thing that could be done would be to call human resources.
The letter of reprimand described the tongue-in-cheek signature as “unprofessional” and “inaccurate.” On Oct. 9 Watt sent Burt an alternative signature that he could use instead, one that had no quips and listed just his contact information. Burt lamented that other professors had quirky additions to their signatures.
Burt said that it was a case of too much administration and corporatization of the university, and “Bureaucrats falling in line as bureaucrats against a faculty member.” He said that prior to this he wasn’t on bad terms with the dean or the department chair, that there was nothing personal about this.
“I just assumed my chair would be on my side,” Burt said, adding that he had never been reprimanded before.
Burt describes what happened to him as “really bizarre” and “a story that is almost literary, because it doesn’t seem like it could happen.” Something Kafka would write. The professor marveled that it took so many people and so much time and energy to make sure a professor couldn’t check out any more books.
He said that everything could have worked out differently if he could have just met with people independently and spoken with them in person.
Since this all started, Burt hasn’t tried to take out another book. He’s worried he’d get a librarian in trouble.Editorial Tags: LibrariesImage Source: Istockphoto.com/imaginimaIs this diversity newsletter?: Newsletter Order: 0Disable left side advertisement?: Is this Career Advice newsletter?: Magazine treatment: Trending: College: University of FloridaDisplay Promo Box:
- Delgado Community College is starting an associate of applied science in cloud computing.
- Indiana University at Bloomington is starting a bachelor of science education in counseling and student services degree.
- King's College, in Pennsylvania, is starting an undergraduate program in special education.
- Purdue University is starting a master of science in defense engineering and technology.
- Virginia Tech is starting a major in childhood pre-education.