This January, two students at Mount St. Mary’s University reported in the campus newspaper, The Mountain Echo, that their college president planned to dismiss about two dozen students in September in an effort to improve the school’s retention rate. In a now-infamous conversation with a small group of faculty and administrators, the president, Simon Newman, explained that professors shouldn’t feel so sentimental about holding on to students who are unlikely to succeed. “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t,” The Mountain Echo quoted Newman as saying. “You just have to drown the bunnies … put a Glock to their heads.”
Needless to say, the story of a college administrator who compares struggling teenage students to fluffy woodland creatures that should be murdered with a semi-automatic pistol is a PR disaster. It’s not exactly the caring sentiment that parents expect from a small, traditional Catholic college in rural Maryland that has promised to protect their children.
Chicago’s public schools are in trouble. Nearly $6 billion in debt, the district staved off immediate financial collapse this month only by selling $725 million in bonds to Wall Street at an unusually high interest rate. Meanwhile, thousands of protesters organized by the Chicago Teachers Union clogged streets in the Loop during the evening rush hour last week, demanding higher salaries, greater contributions to pension and health-care plans, and a cap on charter schools. Chicago Public Schools is the third largest district in the nation.
In response to this crisis, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner proposed a rather extreme remedy: a state takeover of the city’s public schools. The move—which could ultimately be rejected by the Democratically controlled legislature—would involve taking control from local education and political leaders over some, or even all, schools in the district. Eleven states, most of them led by Republican governors, have similarly passed or debated legislation to create state-run school districts in the past year, including Michigan, Arkansas, Nevada, and Wisconsin. But research and past experience show that takeovers by themselves are not a cure all for the problems faced by struggling urban schools.
I’m a card-carrying member of three parent school associations. I write the weekly newsletter for the special-education parents’ group and help organize social events for disabled kids. But my involvement is minimal compared to the extraordinary efforts by others who raise money for schools in our town. With fundraising skills honed by former careers in business and law, these parents tap into the deep pockets of residents to collect large sums of money, which purchase items as small as a doormat in front of the school for muddy boots to costly gifts, like Chromebooks for every child. These groups also assist those in the community who are less affluent, providing college scholarships and helping create social connections for marginalized families with special-needs children.
But is all this work from parent-school groups—work that is done with the best of intentions—unfairly increasing advantages in already privileged communities? Are my volunteer activities magnifying the differences between rich and poor school districts? Education policy experts disagree about the impact of these groups in schools.
College conjures up images of all-you-can-eat dining halls, midnight runs for pizza, tubs of ice cream in the dorm-room fridge, and ethnically sensitive burritos. I remember working in the dishroom of a dining hall as a student and grabbing trays of half-eaten burgers and pancakes from the conveyer belt, dumping all the mess into large trash cans. If anything, college is associated with an excess of food, where students gain the “Freshman 15.”
Recent research on hunger at colleges opens serious questions about those assumptions.
Richard Price always had an entrepreneurial bent. He started a cake business in his mum’s kitchen during a summer break from his doctoral program at Oxford, eventually converting it into a sandwich-delivery service after realizing people only ate cake once a week. Then, when one of his philosophy papers took three years to get published, Price channeled his business interests into a new venture aimed at streamlining that academic process.
After finishing his DPhil (the English equivalent of a Ph.D.), Price raised venture capital in London and moved to San Francisco to start Academia.edu in 2008.
College presidents are coming from the corporate world. Why? And can they handle a student protest?