House of Representatives Vote Condemning President Trump’s Words to Four Congresswomen as Racist!

Dear Commons Community,

In response to President Donald Trump telling four congresswomen to “go back” to their original countries, Democrats offered a resolution condemning the president’s words as racist. But the House descended into  chaos than expected yesterday as Republicans objected to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) calling Trump’s comments “racist” ― technically a violation of House rules ― and Democrats upheld House rules in one instance and ignored them in others.

If there was any doubt that Republicans are in lockstep with Trump, the contentious debate and vote Tuesday should put it to rest. The House voted 240-187 to denounce Trump’s statement as racist, with four Republicans ― Fred Upton of Michigan, Susan Brooks of Indiana, Will Hurd of Texas and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania ― joining all Democrats in support of the resolution. 

But the vote was only a small part of the mayhem on the House floor.

The resolution was a tightly worded document meant to castigate the president for his racist attack on Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.). Democrats had already tortured themselves on the exact wording of the resolution, which carries the same force as a press release. There was an internal debate that spilled out on the floor Monday evening about whether Democrats should actually call Trump’s comments racist ― daring vulnerable Republicans to vote against the resolution ― or whether they should just refer to the tweets and try to divide Republicans as much as possible on the vote.

Ultimately, they went with calling the comments as most members saw it: racist, and they decided it was better to unite their own caucus rather than trying to divide Republicans.


Elon Musk’s Neuralink  Takes Steps to Wiring Brains to the Internet!

Dear Commons Community,

Yesterday, Neuralink, a company in which Elon Musk has invested $100 million, detailed the first steps it has taken toward wiring brains to the Internet. Neuralink described a “sewing machine-like” robot that can implant ultrathin threads deep into the brain.  The company is hoping to begin working with human subjects as soon as the second quarter of next year.  As described in the New York Times:

“The company claims the system will eventually be capable of reading and writing vast amounts of information. But as with many of Mr. Musk’s other ventures, like spaceships or futuristic tunnels, one of the biggest challenges may be for his scientists to match his grand vision.

Mr. Musk, the billionaire chief executive of the electric carmaker Tesla who has famously claimed that he “wants to die on Mars, just not on impact,” has a reputation for doing bold things, as well as making even bolder claims that stretch credulity.

Like artificial intelligence, the idea of inserting a device into the brain that would allow speedy communication between humans and computers veers quickly into science fantasy.

In his 1984 science-fiction novel “Neuromancer,” William Gibson posited the idea of something he called a “microsoft,” a small cartridge directly connected to the brain via a socket to provide a human user with instant knowledge, such as a new language.

In a briefing on Monday, Neuralink executives acknowledged they had a “long way to go” before they could begin to offer a commercial service. But they were ready to discuss their work publicly. Mr. Musk was not at the meeting.

A small processor sits on the surface of the skull and captures information from electrodes that sit along a tiny thread that might penetrate a number of centimeters into the brain.

 “We want this burden of stealth mode off of us so that we can keep building and do things like normal people, such as publish papers,” said Max Hodak, Neuralink’s president and one of the company’s founders.

Mr. Musk has been active in trying to help solve the engineering challenges that Neuralink faces, according to Shivon Zilis, project director at Neuralink. The company has received $158 million in funding and has 90 employees.

While the most fantastical visions for a brain-computer may be a long way off, Mr. Musk may have found a potential medical use.

Mr. Hodak shared Mr. Musk’s optimism that Neuralink technology might one day — relatively soon — help humans with an array of ailments, like helping amputees regain mobility or helping people hear, speak and see.

The company says surgeons would have to drill holes through the skull to implant the threads. But in the future, they hope to use a laser beam to pierce the skull with a series of tiny holes.

“One of the big bottlenecks is that a mechanical drill couples vibration through the skull, which is unpleasant, whereas a laser drill, you wouldn’t feel,” Mr. Hodak said.

They plan to work with neurosurgeons at Stanford University and possibly other institutions to conduct early experiments. Jaimie Henderson, a professor of neurosurgery at Stanford and a specialist in the treatment of epilepsy and the use of a treatment known as Deep Brain Stimulation, is an adviser to Neuralink, according to Mr. Hodak.

In a demonstration at a Neuralink research lab on Monday, the company showed a system connected to a laboratory rat reading information from 1,500 electrodes — 15 times better than current systems embedded in humans. That’s enough for scientific research or medical applications.

Independent scientists cautioned that results from laboratory animals might not translate into human success and that human trials would be required to determine the technology’s promise.

Recently, the most advanced data for animal studies has come from the Belgian company Imec and its Neuropixels technology, which has a device capable of gathering data from thousands of separate brains cells at once.

The threads would be inserted into the brain by a robotic system that works in a manner akin to a sewing machine. A needle would grab each thread by a small loop and then be inserted into the brain by the robot.CreditNeuralink

One of Neuralink’s distinguishing techniques is that it places flexible threads of electrodes in proximity to neurons, the tiny cells that are the basic building blocks of the brain.

The ability to capture information from a large number of cells and then send it wirelessly to a computer for later analysis is believed to be an important step to improving basic understanding of the brain.

The threads are placed using thin needles, and a so-called computer-vision system helps avoid blood vessels on the surface of the brain. The technique being used by Neuralink involves inserting a bundle of threads that are each about a quarter of the diameter of a human hair.  The flexible threads are actually thin sandwiches of a cellophane-like material that insulates conductive wires that link a series of minute electrodes, or sensors, much like a strand of pearls.

They can be inserted in different locations and to different depths, depending on the experiment or application. Medical research and therapy may focus on different parts of the brain, such as centers for speech, vision, hearing or motion.

The flexibility of the Neuralink threads would be an advance, said Terry Sejnowski, the Francis Crick Professor at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, in La Jolla, Calif.

However, he noted that the Neuralink researchers still needed to prove that the insulation of their threads could survive for long periods in a brain’s environment, which has a salt solution that deteriorates many plastics.

Neuralink is certain to have plenty of competition.

Over the past decade, the Pentagon has financed research both for basic brain sciences and to develop robotic control systems that would permit brain control of prosthetic devices.

Researchers with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency already have been able to create interfaces allowing quadriplegics to independently manipulate robot arms to perform manual tasks like drinking.

The Pentagon has financed a variety of techniques, including approaches that use light rather than embedded electrodes to capture data.”

This is all very futuristic but the issue is not whether it will happen but when!


The Chronicle of Higher Education: Executive Compensation at Public and Private Colleges!

Dear Commons Community,

The Chronicle of Higher Education is making available a searchable website that provides data on the compensation packages of more than 1,400 chief college executives.  As described at the website:

“The Chronicle‘s executive-compensation package includes the latest data on more than 1,400 chief executives at more than 600 private colleges from 2008-16 and nearly 250 public universities and systems from 2010-18.

These data show the total compensation received by chief executives in two sectors: (1) public college and university systems, from the 2010-11 through the 2016-17 fiscal years, and in the 2018 calendar year; and (2) private colleges, from 2008 through 2016.

Information about presidents’ tenures and prior employment were obtained from college websites, newspaper archives, or university offices. Photographs were obtained from university websites.”

The graphic above shows the compensation for the top ten executives.  William H. McRaven, Chancellor of  the University of Texas System, is listed with the highest total compensation at $2,578,609.

Very interesting data!



NYS Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia Resigns – Stuns Board of Regents!

Image result for MaryEllen Elia

Dear Commons Community,

New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia surprised attendees at yesterday’s meeting of the Board of Regents with news that she’ll resign from her post by the end of August.  Her resignation takes effect Aug. 31.  As reported by various news media:

“I have an opportunity right now. I’m very excited about that opportunity. It plays to the things that I have most experience in and the work that I want to continue doing and it’s beyond New York State,” said Elia

Elia, who was appointed in 2015, said her next role would involve national education policy.

“I hope to translate the experiences I’ve gained from one of the largest, most complex education systems in the country into lessons to help improve classrooms, schools, and districts for students in every state,” Elia wrote in her resignation letter, also submitted Monday.

Elia worked to cool the controversy over the state’s teacher evaluation program and ease the department’s rollout of the troubled Common Core learning standards — all while attempting to reduce the number of opt-outs to the state’s standardized tests. She replaced John King, who left to take a federal post and ended up being promoted to U.S. Secretary of Education in the waning months of the Obama administration.

“For a period of time, we were in a stalemate,” she told reporters in a press conference Monday afternoon. “By calming the waters and by understanding the importance of teachers’ voices in virtually everything we do — that is one of the things that I’m most proud of.”

Elia conducted a listening tour, traveled around the state seeking feedback from school communities and educator, and later worked with the Legislature to reform the controversial law. She occasionally clashed with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo over the level of state spending — including this year, when Elia told lawmakers in a hearing that the governor’s budget proposal was “substantially lower” than the Regents’ proposal.

New York’s education commissioner is selected by the Board of Regents, whose members are in turn selected by the Legislature, voting as a single body. Because of their numerical strength, this gives most of the influence over the leadership of state education policy to Assembly Democrats.

The state Council of School Superintendents thanked Elia for her leadership during the period of transition.

“She took over at a time when our schools were engulfed by controversies over testing, standards, and teacher evaluations,” the group said in a statement. “Her willingness to engage with the field in charting course adjustments was what we needed at the time.”

The powerful New York State United Teachers union wished her well and said it looked forward “to engaging with the Board of Regents as the search for the next commissioner begins and ensuring that the voices of hundreds of thousands of educators across New York State are heard throughout the process.”

During the past four years, Elia has also launched initiatives targeting vulnerable student populations, such as homeless youth, immigrants and English-language learners. She took the lead on implementation of the state’s $1.6 billion plan to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

While Elia’s announcement came as a shock to some member of the Board of Regents, the commissioner said she was first approached by a national education firm eight months ago. She declined to identify it, but said her new employer was “absolutely not” a lobbying entity.

While Elia denied that her decision stemmed from tension with the Regents, she said it seemed like a good time to transition to new leadership as the board members launched a host of new initiatives.

Elia, a western New York native, returned to the Empire State after running the 200,000-student Hillsborough County, Tampa, Fla., school system.”

We wish Ms. Elia well in her new venture!  Her leaving is a loss for New York State!


Alaska Lawmakers Fail to Avert Sweeping Cuts to the University System – Massive Cuts Likely!

Dear Commons Community,

The University of Alaska’s Board of Regents has $135 million to cut, and on Monday its members will consider a few options for how to do it. One would involve having each of the system’s three universities to designate its own cuts.

Another would involve shuttering regional campuses.

Or the three universities, which currently offer a broad range of programs, could focus more narrowly on a few core programs, such as fisheries, engineering, or nursing, with each institution serving as a “lead campus” for particular disciplines.

A fourth option would be to consolidate the system’s three separately accredited universities into one. That option has broad support among Alaska lawmakers, as well as some board members, but faculty leaders are deeply skeptical about it.  

As reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“The impasse over the Alaska system’s budget isn’t over yet. But on Friday the university officially lost 41 percent of its state funding in one fell swoop, as lawmakers failed to override Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s big cut to the system. Legislators in both the House and the Senate adjourned until next Wednesday, well past the Friday-night deadline for overriding Dunleavy’s line-item vetoes of the state budget.

Dunleavy, a Republican who took office in December, has argued that the Alaska system is spending too much state money per student — about $16,300, more than twice as much as the national average of $7,600, according to a budget memo from the governor’s office. The $135-million cut will reduce that to $11,000 per student.

A system spokeswoman said that applying a national average to Alaska doesn’t take into consideration the relatively high cost of having far fewer students spread over a much larger geographical area.

Beginning immediately, the sprawling university system will be under the gun to get smaller, slashing its budget while maintaining its commitment to students. Fall classes start next month. Here’s where things stand.

The system is expected to declare a financial emergency and some cuts will happen right away.

The system will be forced to consider closing campuses, consolidating services, and making significant layoffs as officials look for the least-damaging way to plug a large budget hole. University regents are expected to declare financial exigency on Monday, allowing campuses to ax programs and lay off tenured professors more easily.

Leadership Insights: Managing a Crisis

The university’s Faculty Alliance urged the regents on Friday not to declare financial exigency until the special legislative session is over.

The budget situation, the alliance wrote, is still fluid, and there’s a chance lawmakers will restore a portion of the budget cuts. Declaring financial exigency too early could jeopardize accreditation and “would send further shock waves to our students, staff, and faculty, and the great community who have come out in support of our universities,” the alliance’s statement said. It would also signal “that we have given up on getting a reasonable budget. This is not wise. The faculty have not given up.”

Cathy Sandeen, chancellor of the University of Alaska at Anchorage, said the university would be looking to regents for guidance on how to make the inevitable cuts that are coming.

“The elected officials are telling us they want a smaller university, and they have reinforced that even more through the failure to override the veto,” Sandeen said. “We need to face facts now and work diligently to get smaller but still fulfill our mission.”

Despite the time crunch the university is under to make sweeping cuts in a fiscal year that began on July 1, Sandeen said she’s committed to doing so thoughtfully, with input from faculty members and students. She said the Faculty Senate had agreed to meet during the summer to help, and student leaders, who are normally away during the summer, are also eager to be involved.

Across the system, no one is hiring, no one is traveling, and no one is buying anything, unless it’s absolutely necessary. Officials are scrubbing any organizational memberships that cost money. About 2,500 staff members have been sent furlough notices, requiring them to take 10 unpaid days off during the year.

The process for deciding what to cut in the long term will be painful.

University of Alaska officials are starting to gather data on enrollment, revenue generated, work-force need, and other factors, which will help them make tough decisions about which programs to cut.

A budget memo from the governor’s office encouraged the Fairbanks and Anchorage campuses to restructure themselves such that there’s only one School of Arts and Sciences, one School of Engineering, and so on.

A Board of Regents task force has already been examining the possibility of consolidating the system’s three universities into one, at the urging of the Legislature.

During a meeting on Friday, task-force members expressed support for avoiding program duplication by designating “lead campuses” for different disciplines. Skeptics have pointed out that limiting offerings on each campus — even with distance-education options — would make it harder for students to receive a well-rounded education.

A Faculty Senate committee at the University of Alaska Anchorage cautioned regents, in a memo released last week, that consolidating programs in sciences, humanities, and arts risks turning comprehensive universities into “technical or professional schools.”

“These programs are where students engage most deeply in self-reflection and advanced critical thinking, asking questions about what matters, what we can know, and what is fundamental to our existence,”  they wrote.

University leaders have also been talking to the Alaska system’s accreditor, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities. The commission sent a letter to state lawmakers last week warning of the dire consequences of such a large budget cut.

In an interview, the commission’s president, Sonny Ramaswamy, said that what he doesn’t want to see is “that they get the word from the board that it’s declared financial exigency, and they suddenly start reacting without being deliberate and proactive.”

Universities that are reluctant to lay off tenured faculty members might see their support staff, including tutors, advisers, and remedial instructors, as “low-hanging fruit,” he said, but cutting those positions could set back the progress the university has made in improving retention and graduation rates.

 “Granted, you have to play with the cards you’re dealt,” Ramaswamy said, “but in the end, you have to focus on the students.”

Lawmakers might restore some money for the system.

University leaders are urging students and faculty members not to give up on Alaska quite yet. James R. Johnsen, the system’s president, issued a letter this week after a failed override vote saying the system would work with lawmakers on restoring some of the money in a separate bill.

But he told The Chronicle that he isn’t bullish on that possibility: “Frankly, I’m doubtful that it’s recurring money, and it’s probably not a lot.”

Johnsen wrote in the letter, “We will not have resolution of our funding for some weeks to come. Every day that passes without resolution means deeper cuts later this year, not to mention reduced enrollment and flight of faculty and staff.”

As the Legislature’s special session continues, Johnsen said, lawmakers will first have to resolve “the elephant in the room” — the Permanent Fund Dividend, the annual payouts, funded by oil revenue, to Alaskans. After that, lawmakers might turn to higher-education funding.

Dunleavy has made clear that he doesn’t see the university as a good return on taxpayer investment in its current form. His office’s budget memo argued that the university has “costly and duplicative programs” and employs too many “high-paid executive management staff,” with “low retention and low graduation rates” for students.

Students — especially those in the state’s remote areas — will bear the brunt of the cuts.

The Alaska system has about 26,600 full- and part-time students. It’s located in one of the least-populous states, so it’s a relatively small university system in terms of enrollment. But its three universities, with 16 campuses in all, serve an enormous geographic area, including many locations that would have little to no access to higher education without the university’s presence.

Students will shoulder much of the impact of the cuts. For one, their tuition will probably go up, a lot. And their degree programs might disappear altogether.”

A very sad situation with few good options.


Trump Tells Freshman Congresswomen to ‘Go Back’ to the Countries They Came From!

Dear Commons Community,
President Trump said yesterday that the four minority congresswomen feuding with Speaker Nancy Pelosi should “go back” to the countries they came from rather than “loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States” how to run the government.
“So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter, “now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.”
Mr. Trump added: “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done.”  Though he didn’t identify his targets by name, they appeared to be Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. The four have been in the news lately amid increased tension between them and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

All four women of color have been outspoken critics of Trump’s handling of the immigration crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border. However, only Omar was born outside of the U.S., having immigrated as a child from Africa.

Mr. Trump’s comments signaled a new low in how far he will go to affect public discourse surrounding the issue. And if his string of tweets was meant to further widen Democratic divisions in an intraparty fight, the strategy appeared quickly to backfire: House Democrats, including Ms. Pelosi, rallied around the women, declaring in blunt terms that Mr. Trump’s words echoed other xenophobic comments he has made about nonwhite immigrants.
And where are  the Republicans in  all of this.  They should be denouncing the disgusting rhetoric of their Party’s leader.

Senator Ted Cruz Slams Tennessee Day To Honor KKK Grand Wizard: ‘This Is WRONG’

Dear Commons Community,

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) spoke against Tennessee’s decision to honor Nathan Bedford Forrest ― a Confederate general, slave trader and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan ― calling it downright “wrong.”

Earlier this week, Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed a proclamation deeming yesterday “Nathan Bedford Forrest Day” and praising him as “a recognized military figure in American history and a native Tennessean.”

On Friday, Cruz had pointed out Forrest’s background in a tweet demanding that the state change its law that requires the governor to declare several specific days of recognition each year. In addition to Forrest, the state also has days honoring Robert E. Lee, who led the Confederate army, and Andrew Jackson, who owned slaves.

Echoing Cruz’s criticism, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) called on the governor to bring the state “into the 21st century” rather than “backsliding into the 19th.”

Despite the criticism, Lee told the Tennessean he hasn’t seriously considered changing the law.

I can see Robert E. Lee and Andrew Jackson being honored but the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan – NO!




Power Outages in Louisiana (and New York City?)

Image result for hurricane barry

Barry Makes Landfall

Dear Commons Community,

With huge amounts of rainfall, tropical storm Barry strengthened into a hurricane yesterday as it moved slowly toward shore, knocking out power on the Gulf Coast and dumping heavy rains that could last for days in Louisiana and other gulf coast states.  More than 70,000 customers were without power, including 66,830 in Louisiana and 3,140 in Mississippi.

The Coast Guard rescued more than a dozen people from the Isle de Jean Charles, south of New Orleans, where water had risen so high that some residents were clinging to rooftops. But in New Orleans, residents and tourists wandered calmly through mostly empty streets under a light rain.  Officials were confident that New Orleans’ levees would hold firm. The barriers range in height from about 20 feet to 25 feet.

Officials predicted Barry would make landfall near Morgan City, west of New Orleans. The small town had an overnight curfew that expired Saturday morning, after on-and-off rain and power outages. People used cellphones to see in the dark, and opened doors and windows to let the warm, sticky tropical air circulate.

Barry had strengthened into a Category 1 hurricane by Saturday morning, with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph (120 kph), the National Hurricane Center said.


Meanwhile in Manhattan, a power outage crippled the tourist-filled heart just as Saturday night Broadway shows were set to go on, sending theater-goers spilling into the streets, knocking out Times Square’s towering electronic screens and bringing subway lines to a near halt.

The New York City Fire Department said a transformer fire at West 64th Street and West End Avenue affected hundreds of thousands of customers along a 30-block stretch from Times Square to about 72nd Street and Broadway.

The fire started just before 7 p.m. Saturday, authorities said.

Power went out early Saturday evening at much of Rockefeller Center, reaching the Upper West Side and knocking out traffic lights.  The outage came exactly on the anniversary of the 1977 New York City outage that left most of the city without power.

I was in Manhattan at Hunter College yesterday to give a talk to a new cohort of doctoral students. Thankfully, I was on my way home via Metro North by 2:30 pm.


Image result for manhattan power outage

A Dark Manhattan Yesterday

Michelle Goldberg Comments on Labor Secretary Acosta’s Resignation and the “Caligula Administration”

Dear Commons Community,

President Donald Trump yesterday announced that Labor Secretary Alex Acosta will step down from his post amid renewed scrutiny over his role in overseeing a 2007 plea deal for Jeffrey Epstein over allegations he sexually abused underage girls.

Trump and Acosta appeared together at the White House to announce the resignation.

Epstein’s arrest on Sunday for similar charges to the ones he faced more than a decade ago had prompted immediate calls for Acosta’s resignation over his involvement in a controversial non-prosecution deal that allowed Epstein to avoid a full federal investigation and possible life sentence. 

In a news conference on Wednesday, Acosta defended his handling of the deal. He declined to offer an apology to Epstein’s victims and instead appeared to blame other prosecutors involved in the non-plea agreement for the decision not to inform victims of the deal.

Trump had previously said that he felt “very badly” for Acosta over the renewed scandal. 

This morning, Michelle Goldberg commented on this latest development in Trump’s presidency by referring to it as the “Calugula Administration.”   To support her assertion, she reviewed some of the goings-on as follows:

“On Monday, Donald Trump disinvited the then-British ambassador, Kim Darroch, from an official administration dinner with the emir of Qatar, because he was mad about leaked cables in which Darroch assessed the president as “insecure” and “incompetent.”

There was room at the dinner, however, for Trump’s friend Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, who was charged in a prostitution sting this year. Kraft was allegedly serviced at a massage parlor that had once been owned by Li Yang, known as Cindy, a regular at Trump’s club Mar-a-Lago. Yang is now the target of an F.B.I. inquiry into whether she funneled Chinese money into Trump’s political operation.

An ordinary president would not want to remind the world of the Kraft and Yang scandals at a time when Jeffrey Epstein’s arrest has hurled Trump’s other shady associations back into the limelight. Epstein, indicted on charges of abusing and trafficking underage girls, was a friend of Trump’s until the two had a falling out, reportedly over a failed business deal. The New York Times reported on a party Trump threw at Mar-a-Lago whose only guests were him, Epstein and around two dozen women “flown in to provide the entertainment.”

Epstein, of course, was also linked to the administration in another way. The president’s labor secretary, Alexander Acosta, was the United States attorney who oversaw a secret, obscenely lenient deal that let Epstein escape federal charges for sex crimes over a decade ago. On Friday, two days after a tendentious, self-serving news conference defending his handling of the Epstein case, Acosta finally resigned.

Even with Acosta gone, however, Epstein remains a living reminder of the depraved milieu from which the president sprang, and of the corruption and misogyny that continue to swirl around him. Trump has been only intermittently interested in distancing himself from that milieu. More often he has sought, whether through strategy or instinct, to normalize it.”

Don’t hold back, Ms. Goldberg!


Betsy DeVos and USDOE Proposing College Accreditors Compete with One Another!

Dear Commons Community,

Buried in the US Department of Education’s 400-plus pages of proposed regulations, are changes meant to spur competition among the nation’s accrediting organizations — the groups that oversee the academic quality and federal compliance of their member colleges. The proposed rules would allow the seven regional accreditors, whose membership is largely limited to particular states, to accredit colleges outside their geographic boundaries.  As reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“The idea of abolishing the regional boundaries of this group of accreditors is not a new one, and it has some support even among those who are critical of the department’s reasoning. “At some point we do have to break down these regional barriers,” said David A. Bergeron, a senior fellow for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress. But to do it properly requires a change in the federal law, not just tweaking the regulations, he said.

That “tweaking” is not expected to cause an immediate shift in the accreditation landscape. But it is part of the department’s goal of leveling the playing field between traditional public and nonprofit colleges and the for-profit sector. And in the long run, critics fear, it will cause institutions to seek only the accreditor that provides the least oversight.”

Accreditation has increasingly come under scrutiny from policy makers and the public as the demand and price for a college credential has risen in recent decades. The Education Department’s current proposals are just the latest attempt to overhaul a system that is often seen as an anachronism.

The current regional accreditors developed as voluntary-membership organizations late in the 19th century when the limits of travel and communication made it practical to restrict the boundaries of organizations that rely on peer review and campus visits. The seven regional groups that emerged now oversee the vast majority of public and private, nonprofit colleges in areas that range from two states to 19.

But higher education looks a lot different than it did more than a century ago: Many colleges now enroll students across all states and around the globe through branch campuses and online courses.

Although accreditation is technically still voluntary, it has become essential to most colleges since the middle of the 20th century when the government required it in order to receive federal student aid. Now, a process that was developed as a voluntary means of academic quality assurance has been layered with dozens of requirements to police federal compliance.

The tensions over the regional divisions in accreditation have resulted in some complaints that the system is a sort of monopoly, said Susan D. Phillips, a professor of educational and counseling psychology and also a member of a panel that advised the department on accreditation. Colleges accredited by a regional agency may comply with an accreditor, she said, not because the standards are best for their institution but because they have no other options.

Related to that, she said, some colleges have felt that they are being evaluated by institutions that are not truly peers but simply close to them geographically.

Bergeron, who served as acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education under President Barack Obama, said there was discussion about how to end the regional division.

“We have this mish-mash that doesn’t serve anyone,” he said.

Some elite institutions, in particular, felt the process was too burdensome and not tailored to their missions. Instead of assigning geographic boundaries, many of these colleges wanted accreditation to focus on the differing goals and outcomes that colleges wanted to achieve. High-level research universities, for example, or community colleges could be grouped under the same accreditor, Bergeron says.

At the same time, however, the department made it clear that accreditors should be evaluated, in part, on the success of their students.

The regulations now coming from the Education Department aren’t expected to cause a rush of colleges to switch accreditors.

If finalized, the new rules would allow, but not require, the agencies to accredit main campuses in states where they also oversee a branch campus of a college within their region. For some accreditors, this could result in applications from all or nearly all states. The Higher Learning Commission, for example, now oversees colleges in 19 states, with branch campuses in 28 other states.

All of this is a step in the wrong direction, said the Higher Learning Advocates, a bipartisan advocacy and consulting group. In comments to the department, the organization’s executive director, Julie Peller, wrote that the distinctions and expertise within the regions are still important to evaluating a college.

“Regional accreditors are membership associations that serve institutions in specific regions of the country and utilize peer-review and regional workforce and employment trends to best review and approve institutions under their purview.”

Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher-education policy at the think-tank New America, said that removing regional distinctions has to be seen as part of the department’s broader goals to make it easier for new institutions and programs to get federal student aid with less oversight from both the department and accrediting agencies

Opening up competition among accreditors will lead to the worst-performing colleges’ seeking the least rigorous oversight, she said.

“The concept of competition in any regulatory market is a complete and total myth and will cause an immediate race to the bottom.”

In sum, not a good idea!