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GARDEN GROVE, Calif. -- Ask the many assessment haters in higher education who is most to blame for what they perceive as the fixation on trying to measure student learning outcomes, and they are likely to put accreditors at the top of the list.
Which is why it was so unexpected last week to hear a group of experts on student learning tell attendees at a regional accreditor's conference here that most assessment activity to date has been a "hot mess" and that efforts to "measure" how much students learn should be used help individual students and improve the quality of instruction, not to judge the performance of colleges and universities.
The session took place at the Academic Resource Conference, the annual gathering of the WASC Senior College and University Commission, which accredits institutions in California, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. The panel's title built off the conference's theme of "provocative questions and courageous answers," and asked, in regard to teaching, learning and assessment, "is higher education accomplishing what it said it would?"
Not surprisingly, given such a broadly framed question, the conversation that unfolded was wide ranging and, at times, scattershot. But at its core, the discussion revolved largely around whether the way most colleges currently have gone about trying to judge whether their students are learning (by defining student learning outcomes and finding some way to gauge whether they have achieved those goals) helps institutions (and helps higher education collectively) prove they are doing a good job.
The answers were pretty uniformly no, despite all the activity colleges have engaged in during the last decade.
"There's a paradox that puzzles me and should puzzle all of us," said John Etchemendy, former provost at Stanford University, who is also a commissioner of the Western accrediting commission and a member of the federal panel that advises the U.S. education secretary on accreditation. The evidence is unequivocal, he said, that "the answer to the question on the screen -- is higher education accomplishing what it said it would? -- is absolutely yes," based on how much more college-goers earn over their lifetimes than Americans without a degree, among other indicators.
But "whenever we try to directly measure what students have learned, what they have gotten out of their education," Etchemendy continued, "the effect is tiny, if any. We can see the overall effects, but we cannot show directly what it is, how it is that we’re changing the kids."
Part of the problem, said Natasha Jankowski, director of the National Institute of Learning Outcomes Assessment, is defining what assessment is and what it isn't -- or, more precisely, differentiating between different kinds of assessment: that used for individual and institutional improvement and that used for external accountability purposes.
"There is assessment about informing my teaching" and students' learning -- understanding how students respond to or gain from certain kinds of content or instructional approaches, and developing evidence "that I would need to see to make a change in how I teach something," she said.
"That's very different from 'have we [in higher education generally] been effective over time?'" Jankowski said. The latter requires marshaling "a variety of evidence" of performance on numerous fronts (economic as well as educational) to a range of audiences (politicians, accreditors, students and parents, employers, the public), and "one test or measure [of student learning] isn't going to help us in that space." (A 2007 essay in Inside Higher Ed, "Assessment for 'Us' and Assessment for 'Them'" captured this conundrum well.)
Much of the assessment work in the last decade has focused on trying to develop quantifiable proof that institutions are helping their students, collectively, learn, with the aim of being able to create a measure of educational quality that was comparable across institutions. This push was often driven by accreditors' pressure on colleges, which was driven in turn by federal government pressure on accreditors. (One participant in the Western accreditor's panel, Jose F. Moreno, an associate professor of Latino education and policy studies at California State University at Long Beach, shared that when institutions like his were awaiting visits from the accreditor, they would often say "the WASC-itos were coming," a belittling reference to hordes of regulators about to descend.)
That led to a form of what Jankowski called "assessment as bureaucratic machine," which often resulted in institutions slapping together ill-conceived efforts to try to measure something to prove they were doing so.
"At a lot of places," Jankowski said, "it was, 'You need some learning outcomes -- put something together.' 'What are learning outcomes?' 'I don't care. Just fill this out.'
"It's not just that faculty members are crabby and hate change … There are good reasons why faculty hate it. It's real and it's earned," Jankowski said. (An Inside Higher Ed survey of faculty members last year, for instance, found that 59 percent of respondents agreed that assessment efforts "seem primarily focused on satisfying outside groups such as accreditors or politicians," rather than serving students.) Essays like this also reflect faculty disdain.
It's time for those in the assessment field to "own up to the fact that everyone had a first-round 'hot mess' go of it," she said. "We had a round of assessment that was really detrimental, incredibly measurement focused."
What Might Round 2 Look Like?
No one on the panel was arguing that teaching and learning are unimportant or that college officials and faculties shouldn't be regularly analyzing how well both things are happening in their classrooms -- far from it.
But "we need to worry less about the architectonic of how assessment works," Etchemendy said, and more about periodically checking "whether we’re teaching what we’re trying to achieve, and is the design still a good design, or maybe times have changed.
"If we discover that our class is not working or that our students are not getting what we want them to get out of the class, then I would think we would all try to change it. Those are the good parts of assessment, and I think anybody can buy in to that."
If efforts to measure student learning in a quantifiable way have been counterproductive, what should constructive assessment look like?
It should start, Jankowski and others said, with understanding what an institution (or an instructor, at the granular level) wants students to know and be able to do.
Sharon B. Hamill, a professor of developmental psychology and faculty director of the Institute for Palliative Care at California State University at San Marcos, suggested a form of "backward design," focused on "where do I want them to end up, and then how do I help them get there," she said. "Think to yourself, 'if they don’t remember another thing, they’ll remember this.'"
Robert Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and former Obama administration official who has railed against what he calls the "inane" focus on student learning outcomes, attended the Western accreditor's session and later led another called Improving Assessment by Putting a Leash on the Dogma. He said institutions should focus on making sure students are persisting in their academic programs and understanding what's impeding those who don't.
Focusing on outcomes like that don't necessarily capture the amount or quality of the learning, since institutions have been known to let students continue through their programs without demanding much in return.
The best way to gauge that, Shireman said, is to do "random checks of artifacts of the teaching and learning process (student work, instructor feedback, etc.). Ideally, portfolios of student work, not cherry-picked, would be available for public review (or at least external peer review). This should be arranged by the school but checked by accreditors." Such an approach would be designed, he said, to protect against diploma mills or other lesser-quality institutions.
But how might one go about answering the question that the Western accreditor's session started with: "Is higher education accomplishing what it said it would?" If it's not with assessment of student learning outcomes at the course or institutional level, it should be with "external, objective measures that measure indirectly program and institutional success -- things that can’t be fudged," Etchemendy said.
"Whether they graduate; whether they manage high-, well-paying jobs 10 to 15 years out, are they repaying their loans, what do they think about their institutions?" he said. "Those are the things I’m really interested in measuring."Assessment and AccountabilityNational Accountability SystemsEditorial Tags: AccreditationAssessmentImage Source: WSCUCIs this diversity newsletter?: Newsletter Order: 0Disable left side advertisement?: Is this Career Advice newsletter?: Magazine treatment: Trending: College: California State University-Long BeachCalifornia State University-San MarcosStanford UniversityDisplay Promo Box:
Despite faculty opposition, the leader of Connecticut’s public colleges and universities is moving forward with plans to consolidate the state's 12 two-year institutions.
Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, presented his plan to consolidate the administrative functions of the community colleges to the system's accreditor April 11. This was the second time that he presents a plan to the accreditor, the New England Commission of Higher Education. When Ojakian originally proposed the consolidation plan nearly a year ago, the commission said it was not "persuaded that planning for the new Community College of Connecticut as outlined … is realistic."
“When we meet with NECHE, it’s to provide a status report on our progress since we heard from them last year,” Ojakian said. “We can assure them we’re on the right path and receiving guidance accordingly … We’re following their guidance that we should look and act like one accredited institution.”
Ojakian’s consolidation proposal, also known as Students First, would place the 12 colleges and their satellite campuses under a single, centrally managed authority. Instead of 12 separate presidents for each college, the proposal creates three regional president positions. Six finalists for the positions were announced in March. According to the proposal, faculty, academic and student affairs staff would not be affected, but about 23 percent of the 750 administrative staff positions in the system would be cut. Ojakian said some of those positions would initially be reduced through employee retirements.
The single community college entity would be in place by 2023 and would save the 12 colleges a total of $23 million a year, Ojakian said.
“We’ve already realized some of the savings because as individuals have retired, we’ve replaced them with positions that would be part of the new organization,” Ojakian said, adding that the savings from retirements so far have come to about $4 million.
“The more critical piece to this is the student success piece,” he said. “How much additional revenue can we bring into the system because it’s easier for students to enroll, stay and complete?”
Faculty members who oppose the plan -- many of whom call themselves “reluctant warriors” -- question the cost-saving estimates of Ojakian and his administration and have called on state lawmakers to intervene. Last month, students and faculty protested the plan and presented Governor Ned Lamont, a Democrat, with a petition of more than 1,300 signatures opposing it.
“I don’t understand why the Legislature is accepting the numbers being thrown out by the system office and Ojakian,” said Lois Aime, president of the Norwalk Community College Senate and director of educational technology at the institution. “Why isn’t anybody looking for an outside auditing agency to look at this?”
Aime and some other faculty members have complained that they have not been able to view the financial information Ojakian used to determine his estimates.
State lawmakers are examining the statements Ojakian and other system administrators have made about the cost of the consolidation and the savings it could bring the colleges. Faculty members opposed to the consolidation have lobbied the Legislature to stop the consolidation or at least slow down the process. A bill that would require the Legislature to approve the consolidation or closing of any CSCU institutions is awaiting action in the State Senate.
“The Legislature should have some control over this because we’re dealing with public higher education,” Aime said. “The Board of Regents don’t answer to anybody, and they aren’t elected.”
Ojakian opposes the bill and warns that inviting more legislative oversight of the system would politicize the system's decision making. He said community colleges in districts with a smaller number of legislative delegates would lose out under a system that allows input from lawmakers.
“That does nobody any good, and it does a disservice to students,” he said
CSCU and its Board of Regents were created in 2011, when lawmakers merged the state's community colleges with its universities and Charter Oak State College, an online institution. Nine of the 15 voting board members are appointed by the governor, four are appointed by the Legislature and two students are selected by their peers.
Matthew Warshauer, a history professor at Central Connecticut State University, said the bill will not stop the consolidation but is a good first step to confronting Ojakian’s proposal. Warshauer said he’s not opposed to consolidating some administrative functions in the system, or to Ojakian as the system’s president, but he is worried that centralizing management of the community colleges would lead to micromanagement and less academic freedom for instructors at the colleges, and eventually for those at the four state universities.
Faculty groups in the state are opposed to Ojakian’s plan for several reasons. They fear the colleges will lose their individual cultural identities and unique academic programs. Faculty members are also are concerned the colleges will be forced to deliver uniform programs whether or not they meet local work-force demands. Warshauer said faculty also fear that moving to a single accreditation process could jeopardize the individual accreditation of each the colleges, which are currently on different accreditation schedules.
Warshauer also said much of the streamlining that Ojakian proposed could be done without the centralization plan.
“The problem has never been that the community colleges or state universities are poor stewards of state money,” he said. “The problem is clear: the Legislature is putting fewer dollars in education because our state is in economic trouble.”
A report last year from EAB, an educational research and technology services company, found that per-student state spending for college students was below pre-recession levels across the country. State spending on Connecticut students decreased by 12.6 percent from 2008 to 2017, according to the report.
Warshauer said the system, the regents and the faculty should be working together to help the system become more efficient and put the colleges on better financial footing, but instead Ojakian’s answer has been to "blow up the system and remake it."
The total combined enrollment in the state’s community colleges is at a 10-year low, although some colleges are seeing an increase in students. Overall enrollment was 51,105 students in 2008; that number fell to 47,912 students in 2018, according to CSCU data. Enrollment was highest in 2010 at 58,253 students. System administrators project enrollment will decline an additional 8 percent in the next decade. Community colleges nationally have projected that their enrollments will continue to decline over the next several years.
Ojakian said budget shortfalls will only compound the problem.
“The governor’s budget proposal that was released in February flat funded us,” he said. “But even being flat funded, our community colleges are poised to end next fiscal year with a $25 million shortfall.”
If the financial and enrollment problems worsen then someone will have to decide which of the 12 colleges and four satellite campuses continue to exist, he said.
“Somebody will have to pick winners and losers, and it won’t be me,” he said.
The CSCU board approved a 5 percent tuition increase at the state universities last month. Ojakian said over the next couple of weeks the board will consider increasing tuition at the community colleges.
“We will not balance the burden of our deficit on the backs of students,” he said.
During a recent legislative hearing on the consolidation, Barbara Brittingham, president of NECHE, the colleges' accreditor, wouldn't comment on the steps Ojakian has taken, but she said he has been in regular contact with the commission to “avoid surprises.”
“This is a very big deal, and I don’t know of any other merger as ambitious as the one being planned here,” she said. “It’ll be interesting to see how the commission continues to work with the system, assuming they go forward.”Community CollegesEditorial Tags: Community collegesMergersConnecticutImage Caption: Mark Ojakian, president of Connecticut State Colleges and UniversitiesIs this diversity newsletter?: Newsletter Order: 0Disable left side advertisement?: Is this Career Advice newsletter?: Magazine treatment: Trending: College: Central Connecticut State UniversityDisplay Promo Box:
Camille Paglia has long been a controversial figure in and out of academe -- best known in the world of scholarship for Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (Yale University Press). She is also a professor at the University of the Arts -- and some students there are urging that she be fired. Paglia is a target because of her statements criticizing some women who bring charges of sexual assault, and because of her comments about transgender people.
Her comments won't surprise those who have watched her career, but they have led to more controversy on campus than she has faced in the past. The university's president, without naming her, issued a strong statement defending academic freedom -- a statement that Paglia is praising as a model of the way college leaders should respond to demands that faculty members be fired for their statements.
Paglia's comments on the Me Too movement came in a recent YouTube video.
In the video, she criticizes "girls" who are "coached" about complaints they bring, and she focuses on college students and those who bring a complaint of rape months after an incident over "a mistake they may make at a fraternity party." She said bringing complaints in this way "is not feminism" but is part of a "bourgeois culture of excuses."
Critics also point to comments Paglia made in a 2017 interview with The Weekly Standard in which she touched on transgender issues.
"It is certainly ironic how liberals who posture as defenders of science when it comes to global warming (a sentimental myth unsupported by evidence) flee all reference to biology when it comes to gender. Biology has been programmatically excluded from women's studies and gender studies programs for almost 50 years now. Thus very few current gender studies professors and theorists, here and abroad, are intellectually or scientifically prepared to teach their subjects," she said. "The cold biological truth is that sex changes are impossible. Every single cell of the human body remains coded with one's birth gender for life. Intersex ambiguities can occur, but they are developmental anomalies that represent a tiny proportion of all human births."
Paglia has said that she supports equal rights and does not object to people defining their sexual orientations and gender identities as they wish -- including in ways frowned upon by traditionalists. But she has defended the right of scholars to question some of the stances taken by some who support transgender rights. Via email, she said that she identifies as being transgender -- and that she regularly talks about the great contributions made to art and society by people who cross gender boundaries.
The petition demanding her ouster says that "in recent interviews she has blatantly mocked survivors of sexual assault and the #MeToo movement, and in classes and interviews has mocked and degraded transgender individuals."
Further, the petition says, "Camille Paglia should be removed from UArts faculty and replaced by a queer person of color. If, due to tenure, it is absolutely illegal to remove her, then the university must at least offer alternate sections of the classes she teaches, instead taught by professors who respect transgender students and survivors of sexual assault."
And the petition criticizes David Yager, president of the university, saying that he should apologize "for his wildly ignorant and hypocritical letter."
That letter was distributed as students started urging the dismissal of Paglia, but made no mention of her or her statements.
"Unfortunately, as a society we are living in a time of sharp divisions -- of opinions, perspectives and beliefs -- and that has led to decreased civility, increased anger and a 'new normal' of offense given and taken," Yager wrote. "Across our nation it is all too common that opinions expressed that differ from another’s -- especially those that are controversial -- can spark passion and even outrage, often resulting in calls to suppress that speech. That simply cannot be allowed to happen.
"I firmly believe that limiting the range of voices in society erodes our democracy. Universities, moreover, are at the heart of the revolutionary notion of free expression: promoting the free exchange of ideas is part of the core reason for their existence. That open interchange of opinions and beliefs includes all members of the UArts community: faculty, students and staff, in and out of the classroom. We are dedicated to fostering a climate conducive to respectful intellectual debate that empowers and equips our students to meet the challenges they will face in their futures."
And the letter added, with reference to the mission of the University of the Arts, "I believe this resolve holds even greater importance at an art school. Artists over the centuries have suffered censorship, and even persecution, for the expression of their beliefs through their work. My answer is simple: not now, not at UArts."
Paglia said via email that she considered the protests against her "a publicity stunt" by people who do not understand her ideas.
She praised her university president's "eloquent statement affirming academic freedom [as] a landmark in contemporary education." And she said she hoped other colleges would view the statement as a model for how to "deal with their rampant problem of compulsory ideological conformity."Editorial Tags: Academic freedomImage Source: YouTubeImage Caption: Camille PagliaIs this diversity newsletter?: Newsletter Order: 0Disable left side advertisement?: Is this Career Advice newsletter?: Magazine treatment: Trending: Display Promo Box:
Med school at Washington University St. Louis will be tuition-free for more than half of new students
Last summer New York University's medical school, where the sticker price on tuition was more than $55,000 a year, announced that all current and new students would henceforth receive full-tuition scholarships.
One question raised by the move was whether top medical schools would match NYU's new policy.
On Tuesday, another leading medical school -- at Washington University in St. Louis -- announced that it was going to spend $100 million so that more than half of its new students from now on will not pay tuition. Currently, only about 20 of the students in an M.D. class of 120 receive full-tuition scholarships. Those not receiving full scholarships in the future will be able to receive partial scholarships. (Under a tuition plan that assures students the same rates for four years, Wash U currently charges $65,044 a year for tuition, with total costs of more than $85,000.)
The awards will be made both on the basis of financial need and measures of academic merit.
Washington University officials said that they have been making progress at limiting student debt, but that efforts to date have not been enough. The average debt of Washington University School of Medicine graduates over the past five years has been $99,088, compared to a national median of $166,239. Many have argued that high debt levels -- coupled with relatively low pay new M.D.s receive during their residencies -- discourage new doctors from jobs in which they may treat the disadvantaged or work in rural or other locations lacking enough medical care.
According to statistics from the Association of American Medical Colleges, three-quarters of the Class of 2017 had debt. Among those who had borrowed, median indebtedness rose 1 percent, to $192,000. About half of students, 48 percent, borrowed $200,000 or more -- and 46 percent planned to enter a loan forgiveness or repayment program.
Completely tuition-free medical education isn't unheard-of. Sometimes new medical colleges adopt such policies to attract students, but this is typically for a limited time period. Other institutions have made pushes for some designated share of the class to receive full-tuition scholarships.
About 20 percent of students at the David Geffen School of Medicine of the University of California, Los Angeles, are awarded scholarships that cover all expenses -- tuition, room and board, books and supplies, and more. The scholarships are awarded based on measures of academic merit, not financial need.
When NYU announced its plans last year, some critics questioned whether all medical students needed the same levels of help. An essay in Slate called the move "at best, a well-intentioned waste -- an expensive, unnecessary subsidy for elite medical grads who already stand to make a killing one day as anesthesiologists and orthopedic surgeons."
Eva Aagaard, senior associate dean for education at Washington University, said via email that the university does hope to encourage medical students to look for a range of careers and that curricular changes will spotlight the value of such careers.
But she also said it may not be realistic to target aid to new medical students based on later career goals. "Students rarely know their career plans at the time of entry into medical school, and many students change their minds," she said. "We do look at interest and potential in academics, including interest in teaching, research and community engagement/advocacy, as part of the selection process both for the school and for the non-need-based aid."
NYU officials said it was too early to know how the new class of students will be different from prior classes. Many medical education experts have speculated that NYU may attract some students who in prior years might have gone to other medical schools.
But NYU saw major gains in its applicant pool, and in particular from groups that have not been flocking the medical schools. NYU Med saw a 102 percent increase, to 2,020, in applications from those who are a member of a group that is underrepresented in medicine (including black, Latino and Native American students). The largest percentage increase was among those who identify as African American, black or Afro-Caribbean. Applications from this group went up 142 percent, to 1,062.Medical EducationEditorial Tags: Medical educationIs this diversity newsletter?: Newsletter Order: 0Disable left side advertisement?: Is this Career Advice newsletter?: Magazine treatment: Trending: College: New York UniversityUniversity of California, Los AngelesWashington University in St. LouisDisplay Promo Box:
New presidents or provosts: Davenport Harper Laurentian Monmouth Northern Colorado Oneonta Pepperdine Richard Bland Saint Joseph's
- Mark Anderson, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics at Kennesaw State University, has been selected as provost at the University of Northern Colorado.
- Maria Dezenberg, executive director of Navitas, a global education company, has been chosen as provost at Richard Bland College of William & Mary, in Virginia.
- James A. Gash, associate dean for strategic planning and external relations and professor of law at the Pepperdine School of Law, has been named president and CEO of Pepperdine University.
- Gilda Gely, provost and vice president for academic and student affairs for Cambridge College, in Massachusetts, has been chosen as provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Davenport University, in Michigan.
- Robert Haché, vice president of research and innovation at York University, in Ontario, has been selected as president and vice chancellor at Laurentian University, also in Ontario.
- Leamor Kahanov, dean of the College of Health Sciences and Education at Misericordia University, in Pennsylvania, has been named provost at the State University of New York at Oneonta.
- Cheryl A. McConnell, dean of the College of Business, Influence and Information Analysis at Rockhurst University, in Missouri, has been appointed provost and vice president for academic affairs at Saint Joseph’s University, in Pennsylvania.
- Avis Proctor, president of Broward College’s North Campus, in Florida, has been named president of Harper College, in Illinois.
- Mark Willhardt, interim dean and professor of English at Monmouth College, in Illinois, has been selected as dean and vice president for academic affairs there.
Los menores de seis años son los que tienen un mayor riesgo de ingerir cuerpos extraños y atragantarse
Tension between national security and science -- by its nature open and international -- is nothing new.
But over the past year and a half, national security agencies, federal granting agencies, the White House and members of Congress have all signaled their increasing concern about international students or scholars who might seek to exploit the openness of the U.S. academic environment for their own -- or their nations' -- gain. And they’re signaling that when it comes to the balance between scientific openness and national security -- and, to add a third dimension, economic competitiveness -- they’re not happy with where that balance is being struck, especially when it comes to China.
Over the past year and a half, there has been a steady drumbeat of developments out of Washington on this issue. To summarize:
- In December 2017, the White House released a national security strategy that floated for the first time the possibility of restrictions on visas for STEM students from certain nations to prevent the transfer of intellectual property to competitor countries.
- In February 2018, Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray told the Senate intelligence committee that China is exploiting America’s open research and development environment and that the intelligence threat from China would require “a whole-of-society response” involving not just the intelligence sector, but the academic and private sectors as well.
- Congressional hearings with names like Scholars or Spies: Foreign Plots Targeting America’s Research and Development followed. In June, the State Department moved to restrict Chinese graduate students in certain high-tech fields like aviation and robotics to one-year visas, instead of the usual five.
- Programs run by foreign governments aimed at recruiting diasporic or international academic talent -- most notably China’s Thousand Talent program -- have also come under federal scrutiny. Speaking at a House armed services committee hearing last June, Anthony M. Schinella, the national intelligence officer for military issues in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said these talent programs "facilitate the transfer of foreign technology, intellectual property and know-how to advance China’s science, technology and military modernization goals."
- An amendment to the defense spending authorization bill last year would have barred Department of Defense funding for any researcher “who has participated in or is currently participating in a foreign talent or expert recruitment program” operated by China, Iran, North Korea or Russia. Although the amendment wasn’t included in the final bill, the version of the bill that was signed into law in August includes language calling for further study of foreign talent recruitment programs and the development of relevant regulations.
- More recently, in January of this year, the Department of Energy, which funds research related to nuclear energy, issued a memo restricting employees and grantees from participating in foreign talent recruitment programs operated by countries deemed by the agency as “sensitive.” A DOE official said the policy, which would affect talent programs operated by China, Iran, North Korea and Russia, has not yet been put in place.
Moreover, it’s not just international collaborations in research funded by the Defense and Energy Departments with their obvious national security implications that have come under increased scrutiny over the past 18 months. Foreign collaborations in the biomedical sciences have, too.
In August, the executive director of the National Institutes for Health, Francis S. Collins, sent a letter to grantees saying the agency “is aware that some foreign entities have mounted systematic programs to influence NIH researchers and peer reviewers.” The letter outlined three main areas of concern: “diversion of intellectual property (IP) in grant applications or produced by NIH-supported biomedical research to other entities, including other countries”; “sharing of confidential information on grant applications by NIH peer reviewers with others, including foreign entities, or otherwise attempting to influence funding decisions”; and “failure by some researchers working at NIH-funded institutions in the U.S. to disclose substantial resources from other organizations, including foreign governments, which threatens to distort decisions about the appropriate use of NIH funds.”
The NIH has reportedly sent letters to dozens of research universities asking them to provide information on specific researchers believed to have undisclosed links to foreign governments, and Senator Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, shared in February that the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General had been referred a number of cases involving allegations that principal investigators on NIH grants had failed to disclose foreign affiliations. An NIH working group on foreign influences on research integrity comprised mostly of university leaders came out with a report in December with a series of recommendations for both the agency and universities to improve disclosure, training and communication, peer review, and monitoring processes.
Bound up in all of this is a broader scrutiny of U.S. universities’ collaborations with China and their acceptance of funding from Chinese government agencies or companies. This scrutiny manifests most prominently in calls from lawmakers for universities to close their Chinese-government funded Confucius Institutes. A wave of U.S. colleges has announced closures of the institutes, which typically focus on Chinese language education and cultural programming, as pressures for them to do so have increased.
Universities have also come under criticism from lawmakers for accepting research funding from Huawei, the Chinese telecom giant that has been charged with violating U.S. sanctions and attempting to steal trade secrets. Some major research universities have cut ties with the company or pledged not to accept future funding. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the latest university to announce it will not accept new funding from Huawei or another Chinese telecom company, ZTE. MIT also announced that it would add an extra layer of review for all collaborations involving people or entities from China (including Hong Kong), Russia and Saudi Arabia.
So that's the overview. And all this is taking place in the context of Trump’s trade war with China and an increasingly competitive relationship between the two countries.
Big picture, what appears to be driving this intensified scrutiny across the various agencies of the federal government and the Congress is a conviction that if academics and other guardians of high-tech knowledge are not more careful, the U.S. risks letting other countries -- most notably China -- steal the fruits of U.S. taxpayer-funded research and cheat their way into gaining a technical edge in certain crucial science and technology fields.
And it’s not just primacy in fields with obvious national security-related implications that’s at issue: at stake as well is U.S. dominance in the biomedical and life sciences and the economic advantage that comes with that. As Grassley said in a February statement about foreign threats to NIH-funded research, "These projects can produce important breakthroughs for patients and industry, keeping America at the cutting edge. I intend to continue scrutinizing this area so taxpayers get their money’s worth when funding this research and foreign actors can’t pilfer the good work done by legitimate researchers."
“This is about not only protecting our national security interests, but it’s also protecting our commercial interests,” said Joanne Carney, the director of government relations at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “That’s an element of national security. Trying to balance our ability to be an innovative nation and protect our commercial interests is something that I think is a priority for the current administration. I think we’re going to go through some growing pains of how do we balance our ability to be an open nation, the ability to collaborate with some of our international partners, while also balancing our commercial interests and national security interests. We’re just going through a new phase.”
"I don’t think it’s necessarily that anything has changed so much as there’s just a growing awareness that there is a potential issue," said M. Roy Wilson, the president of Wayne State University and co-chair of the NIH working group on foreign influences on research integrity. "I do want to emphasize I think everybody on the committee -- most of us were university presidents -- were very, very, very sensitive to the fact that most foreign scientists who get NIH grants and who collaborate with scientists here, the vast, vast majority are very productive and have contributed a huge amount to science and are playing by the rules. We want to make sure that we don’t stigmatize the overwhelming majority of foreign investigators. But having said that, there’s just a growing awareness that there has been some small but nonetheless important problem that has to be addressed."
The U.S. academic research infrastructure is highly reliant on international students and scholars, and Chinese nationals make up the single largest group of students and visiting scholars alike. Students from China earned 5,157 doctorates in science and engineering fields at American universities in 2017, accounting for more than 12 percent of the 41,438 doctorates awarded in science and engineering fields in the U.S. that year, according to data from the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates. In the fields of engineering and mathematics and computer sciences, international students in general (not just students from China) make up the majority of students earning doctorates at U.S. universities. Many in higher education argue that American universities’ ability to continue to attract talented students and scholars from China and elsewhere around the globe is therefore critical to the U.S. remaining a leader in science and technology research.
Science is international, and it's also open: long-standing U.S. government policy holds that fundamental research -- defined as "basic and applied research in science and engineering, the results of which ordinarily are published and shared broadly within the scientific community" -- should be unrestricted "to the maximum extent possible."
That said, the U.S. does have laws and systems in place to protect research that is considered sensitive. Research can be deemed classified -- and many research universities have faculty who do government-funded classified research. Technologies deemed sensitive for their potential “dual use” implications -- both military and commercial purposes -- can be subject to export controls by the Department of Commerce, including "deemed export" rules that prohibit transfer of the technology to foreign nationals who are present within the U.S. The Department of State regulates export of certain technologies subject to arms control regulations, and the Department of Treasury enforces economic and trade sanctions.
But security officials say the national security risk is increasing. A 2018 report from a Pentagon entity, the Defense Innovation Unit, on China’s technology transfer ambitions stated that “Chinese science and engineering students frequently master technologies that later become critical to key military systems, amounting over time to unintentional violations of U.S. export control laws. The phenomena of graduate student research increasingly having national security implications will inevitably increase as the distinction between military and civilian technology blurs.”
“U.S. academic environments offer valuable, vulnerable and viable targets for foreign espionage,” E. W. Priestap, then the assistant director of the counterintelligence division for the FBI, said in prepared congressional testimony last year. “These environments offer visiting academics access to cutting-edge research, advanced technology, data about technologies that may later be further developed in classified environments, world-class equipment and expertise, free exchange of ideas, and substantial private-sector and government-backed funding.”
Priestap argued that colleges and universities need to do more to educate faculty and students about how to protect intellectual property and to mitigate threats. “These schools would also be well served to recognize that, as stewards of taxpayer research dollars, they must implement clearer -- and in some cases more restrictive -- guidelines regarding funding use, lab access, collaboration policy, foreign government partnership, nondisclosure agreements and patent applications,” he said.
Reports from several nongovernmental groups have also raised concerns and suggested that universities and/or governments may need to consider more restrictive policies. A report from an Australian think tank released in October found that China has sponsored more than 2,500 military scientists and engineers to study at overseas universities since 2007 and argues that current policies of universities and governments do not adequately address scientific collaborations with the People's Liberation Army.
“To date, there’s been no significant public discussion on why universities should be directly contributing to the technology of a nonallied military,” says the report, authored by researcher Alex Joske. “Importantly, there’s also little evidence that universities are making any meaningful distinction between collaboration with the Chinese military and the rest of their collaboration with China.”
Another report from a group of China specialists published by the Hoover Institution, "China's Influence and American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance," also addresses the loss of sensitive or proprietary technology through academic instruction or cooperation.
"There are indications that the U.S. government is now strengthening measures to prevent the theft of sensitive technology and intellectual property that is being developed on U.S. campuses," the report states. "These measures may require heightened screening and, in some cases, outright denials of visas to individuals from certain state-run institutions or even from certain sensitive research fields. Such calls have understandably prompted concern from the academic community, fearing that this will undermine the principles of academic freedom, hinder collaboration and deny American universities access to a rich talent pool. These reservations are merited and require that any tightening of visa categories be as narrow as possible."
Competition With China and Fears of Racial Profiling
Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China, describes the intensified focus on research security as “a central part of the American response to China, to its emergence as a peer competitor and to aspects of its ambition and to many of its methods -- not all of which are to be attacked and demonized but some of which are problematic.”
“It’s in the universities that you see it most starkly -- although universities aren’t the only place -- where America’s core values of security are at odds with America’s core values of openness, and we haven’t yet made a decision about how we are going to continue to value openness in light of security concerns,” Daly said. “And there’s a third tranche, which is the value of the market and market economic behavior, which also is at odds with both openness and security and aspects of that play within the university setting as well.”
“From the security end of this, the question is why are we training China’s best and brightest to compete with us more effectively?” Daly asked. “That’s not a silly question. You might have a good answer for that, and one of the answers is over the last 40 years, America has tremendously benefited from Chinese talent. It’s a complicated question. There’s a real danger of racial profiling and there’s a danger of McCarthyist views, and yet even when you say that, when you strip it away, the security concerns remain legitimate because we know a good deal about China’s ambitions at this point.”
The risk of racial profiling has, however, sparked concern. Representative Judy Chu, a Democratic congresswoman from California and the chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, objected last year to what she described as efforts by Congress "to fuel the dangerous narrative that students from China should be viewed with more scrutiny than those from other countries."
A letter published in Science last month from several groups of Chinese or Chinese American scientists also raises concerns about "the recent political rhetoric and policies that single out students and scholars of Chinese descent working in the United States as threats to U.S. national interests." The letter expresses the writers' "sincere hope that increased security measures will not be used to tarnish law-abiding scientists and limit normal and productive scientific exchanges."
William Brustein, the vice president for global strategies and international affairs at West Virginia University, said he has grown increasingly concerned about the "China bashing" he hears from Washington.
“These programs that they’re targeting -- the Confucius Institutes, the talent programs -- there hasn’t recently in the last few years been a nuanced and a balanced approach to talking about the pros and the cons,” he said. “I would think it would be a big detriment to both countries if we continue down this road and we start seeing the end of Chinese student growth in America. To portray it as if all these people who are coming over are working somehow for the People’s Liberation Army or national security apparatus in China is so faulty, so wrong. Most of these people coming over, they want to get a top-notch education, their parents are putting all their resources into the hopes that maybe they’ll be able to get an H-1B visa, stay in the United States and have a career here. Or if they go back to China, they’ll be able to land greater opportunities there, whether it’s in business or some kind of government position. But nevertheless, it’s not as if they’re being trained or indoctrinated to come over here to be spies. I worry about where this is all going.”
The View From Campuses
University leaders say the increased scrutiny from Washington is having an effect on their campuses.
“I do think that all of these letters both from the agencies and from Congress and specific callouts in federal legislation have led to a sense of angst at universities,” said Sandra A. Brown, the vice chancellor for research at the University of California, San Diego. "I think everybody does feel it is a time of greater scrutiny. I’m reminding our faculty that we have normal processes in place to be monitoring these kinds of engagements and we are reminding them of what they are, helping them with any questions that they might have and meeting with them individually as needed with regards to their individual situations."
"It [the greater scrutiny] impacts both issues that relate to foreign collaborations at the investigator level and institutional collaborations but also the student side of things can’t be missed," Brown said. "Faculty are getting nervous about bringing students that in the past they may never have been concerned about."
At the same time, she said, “I do think that this challenge has resulted in enhancements in communications between the universities and federal agencies, not just federal funding agencies, but national security agencies, the FBI, and all of those communications, I think, in the end, will be a good thing.”
Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities, said the association has been sharing best practices, “whether it’s training to make people aware of these things, whether it’s compliance with export control rules. There’s a lot of sharing of information around what campuses have been doing that they feel are effective practices in this area and what they have just started doing in light of some of the concerns that have come from NIH and some of the other agencies.”
"I can tell you the leading research universities and the administrators at the universities are giving this a significant amount of attention and taking this set of issues very seriously," Smith said.
"The focus on what universities should be doing, I think, are really reminiscent of what we do in a number of areas related to research -- one is educating faculty and staff about issues in this area to make sure that they understand that they need to be disclosing who they’re working with, particularly if they have international collaborators. If they’re receiving money, receiving resources, if NIH-supported work is taking place overseas, that needs to be disclosed," said Samuel L. Stanley Jr., the president of the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a member of the NIH working group on foreign influences on research integrity.
“The more problematic thing is, we really work on a system of trust -- we ask people to disclose,” Stanley said. “How do we monitor this? Do we do random audits, or are there red flags we look at? That’s where the partnership with the security agencies becomes so important. It becomes critical that we have information that can help us identify if cases have taken place in NIH or other agencies where people were not following the rules: What are some of the signal or signs that might have helped detect this?”
"There’s a tension that always exists," Stanley said. "I chaired the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity for eight years; it taught me a lot. The security agencies really spend a lot of time thinking about how to protect assets. That’s what they do, and they do very well."
“Of course, we in science think a lot about how you generate new knowledge and how you disseminate as broadly as possible so other people can push the field further. Those two are in fundamental conflict. Finding middle ground sometimes is difficult.”GlobalForeign StudentsEditorial Tags: ChinaInternational higher educationForeign Students in U.S.ResearchImage Source: iStockIs this diversity newsletter?: Newsletter Order: 0Disable left side advertisement?: Is this Career Advice newsletter?: Magazine treatment: Trending: College: Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyStony Brook UniversityUC San DiegoWayne State UniversityWest Virginia UniversityDisplay Promo Box: