EPA Removes Climate Change Language from its Website Hours Before The People’s Climate March!

Dear Commons Community,

While more than 100,000 people descended on Washington, D.C. yesterday as part of The People’s Climate March, the Environmental Protection Agency removed portions of its website related to climate change.  As if snubbing its nose at the marchers, the EPA made changes to reflect the agency’s new direction under President Donald Trump and Administrator Scott Pruitt.   The EPA has also commented that the changes were necessary in order to reflect President Trump’s Executive Order on Energy Independence.  Pages dealing with climate change and its impacts, climate science, and what readers can do to combat climate change are no longer available.

Astrid Caldas, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that the changes were deliberately made to coincide with Saturday’s climate march.

“At a time when Americans are increasingly experiencing climate impacts in their daily lives, the administration has seemingly buried its head in the sand,” Caldas said in a statement. “The administration appears to have timed these changes to make information about climate science more challenging to access to coincide with the Peoples Climate March and related news stories, which will likely drive thousands of Americans to visit the EPA website.”

“The facts about climate change have not changed, however, and politics are not a valid reason to archive basic explanations of science,” the statement continued. “While it is unclear what the administration has planned for updating the web page, climate scientists will be watching closely to ensure the scientific accuracy of whatever replaces it, and that the underlying scientific data remain accessible to Americans.”

A bullying act on the part of the leadership of the EPA!



Donald Trump Addresses National Rifle Association Convention:  No Guns Allowed!

Dear Commons Community,

What has to be considered  an egregious contradiction, Donald Trump addressed the National Rifle Association yesterday but guns were not allowed into the auditorium.  As reported by various media:

“Guns are allowed in most public places in Georgia, including the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta where the NRA is holding its annual meeting through the weekend. But as with most presidential appearances, firearms aren’t allowed.

The NRA was providing lockers for free so people could stow their firearms while inside the room where Trump was to speak Friday afternoon.

Also, each person entering the hall at the center had to go through metal detectors and have bags inspected.

President Donald Trump was the first sitting president to address a National Rifle Association convention in more than 30 years when he spoke yesterday at the group’s annual meeting.

Trump has been a champion of gun rights and supportive of NRA efforts to loosen restrictions on gun ownership. During the campaign, he promised to do away with President Barack Obama’s efforts to strengthen background checks.

According to the NRA, the last president to address an NRA convention was Ronald Reagan, who spoke in 1983.”

A little bit of hypocrisy here given that the NRA has recommended that teachers carry guns to protect themselves and their students in schools.   



Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Former Chicago Schools Chief, Sentenced to 4½ Years in Prison!

Dear Commons Community,

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, the former leader of the Chicago public school system, was sentenced to four and a half years in federal prison yesterday for steering millions of dollars’ worth of school district contracts to her former employer and for accepting kickbacks.  As reported by the New York Times:

“Ms. Byrd-Bennett, who was handpicked for her job by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, learned of her prison term as the almost-cashless district struggles to keep its classrooms open.

Chicago Public Schools officials had warned that they could end the academic year on June 1, three weeks earlier than planned, unless the state of Illinois provided more money. Mr. Emanuel backed off that threat on Friday, but said he was not sure where the money would come from.

… Ms. Byrd-Bennett’s sentencing closed one ugly chapter in [Chicago public schools] history, but the funding dispute and the district’s paltry finances still linger, with credit rating agencies warning that the school system has depleted its reserves and struggles to pay for its pensions…

Budget crunches also haunted the tenure of Ms. Byrd-Bennett, who in 2012 took over a district that had just weathered a teachers’ strike. She quickly enraged many here by helping put in place a plan to close dozens of schools, mostly in black and Latino neighborhoods, in an effort to save money.

Perceived as a seasoned leader of urban schools, with experience in Cleveland and Detroit, Ms. Byrd-Bennett was sought out to improve Chicago’s schools, which enroll more than 380,000 children.

But Ms. Byrd-Bennett raised suspicions after the school board approved a $20 million, no-bid contract with her former employer, a private company that provides training to school principals. She had schemed to steer school district business to the company, with the promise of kickbacks and a lucrative job that would be waiting for her whenever she left Chicago. She resigned in May 2015, shortly before being indicted.

In a lengthy, tearful statement here on Friday in the federal district courtroom of Judge Edmond E. Chang, Ms. Byrd-Bennett apologized for her crimes and said, “What I did was terribly wrong.”

“I’m especially sorry that I’ve let down the students and their families,” said Ms. Byrd-Bennett, who pleaded guilty, and who must surrender to a federal prison in West Virginia in August.

Her sentence was more than what her lawyers had requested, but far less than the term of more than seven years that prosecutors had sought. Judge Chang noted the lengthy history of public corruption in Chicago and the school system’s financial struggles as he handed down the punishment.

“When this crime was committed in the midst of the C.P.S. budget crisis, it did make it all the worse,” Judge Chang said.

A sad case.  Hopefully the Chicago public school system can move on assuming it can weather its budget crisis.



Purdue University Buying For-Profit Kaplan University!

Dear Commons Community,

Here is something we do not see everyday. Purdue University in Indiana is buying troubled Kaplan University to form a non-profit public benefit corporation called New University. As reported by USA Today and other media:

“Graham Holdings Co. announced this morning in a filing with the SEC that it plans to sell its for-profit Kaplan University to a new non-profit public-benefit corporation called New University that is affiliated with Indiana’s Purdue University, a state institution. Purdue confirmed the deal in a press release quoting its president, Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana.

The press release describes the assets that Purdue will acquire as including Kaplan’s “15 campuses and learning centers, 32,000 students, 3,000 employees, and decades of experience in distance education.” But the release adds that the new entity “will operate almost exclusively online.”

Under the agreement, Graham Holdings says, it will “provide key non-academic operations support to New University for an initial term of 30 years with a buy-out option after six years.”

The Purdue release states that Kaplan will provide services including “technological support, human resources, facilities management and other administrative functions.” In other words, Purdue could keep paying Graham Holdings for decades to help run the New /old university. 

The details of the deal are now out. Graham is selling Kaplan University to Purdue for $1 ― potentially a big tax win for Graham, even as it has the chance to reap big annual returns from the service contract.

Betty Vandenbosch, the current president of Kaplan University, will be the chancellor of New University.

For the parties to go through with the deal, it needs regulatory approvals within a year from the U.S. Department of Education, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education and the private Higher Learning Commission, which is the accreditor of both Purdue and Kaplan University.
The deal looks like the latest attempt by the owners of a struggling, troubled for-profit college to salvage its investment, in an era where terrible abuses by many for-profit schools ― deceptive recruiting, sky-high prices, and misrepresentations to government overseers ― have tarnished the reputations and hurt the bottom lines of many companies in the industry, and led to new regulations to curb for-profit misconduct.”

This is an interesting new model for higher education and one that will be watched closely.


President Trump Orders Betsy DeVos to Review USDOE Policies to Strengthen Local Control of Education!

Dear Commons Community,

If we can get passed page one of today’s news reviewing Donald Trump’s tax reform proposal, he signed an executive order yesterday that requires Secretary Betsy DeVos to review all USDOE regulations that impinge on state and local control of education.  The purpose of this order is to roll back many of the requirements imposed by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top policies of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.  This is Trump grandstanding at best in that Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary has the power to do this at any time.  Here is an excerpt from a New York Times article:

“President Trump issued a sweeping review of federal education policies on Wednesday in an executive order to pinpoint areas where the government may be overstepping in shaping operations of local school systems.

The order requires Betsy DeVos, Mr. Trump’s education secretary, to review, modify and possibly repeal any regulations and guidelines that are not consistent with federal law.

Mr. Trump described the order as “another critical step to restoring local control,” and one that fulfills one of his campaign promises.

“For too long, the federal government has imposed its will on state and local governments,” Mr. Trump said at a news conference to sign the order. “The result has been education that spends more, and achieves far, far, far less.”

The review will be conducted within 300 days, and its findings will be published in a public report. It aims to ensure local leaders will have the final say “about what happens in the classroom,” said Rob Goad, a senior Education Department official. Ms. DeVos is already empowered to rescind guidance and regulations, and has already done so, and any attempt at overturning laws would be subjected to a legal, regulatory process.

In an interview, Ms. DeVos called Mr. Trump’s order a “welcomed opportunity” and “a clear mandate to take that real hard look at what we’ve been doing at the department level that we shouldn’t be doing, and what ways we have overreached.”

She said Mr. Trump had already espoused “the importance of states and localities’ being able to address issues that are closest to them.”

“And when it comes to education, decisions made at local levels and at state levels are the best ones,” Ms. DeVos said.

The review will focus on K-12 policy, Mr. Goad said. It will be overseen by a regulatory task force headed by Robert Eitel, who was hired from the for-profit sector to serve as a senior counselor to Ms. DeVos. Mr. Eitel is a vocal critic of regulations in higher-education and K-12 policy, and his hiring was controversial.

A New York Times investigation found that before he took his post in the Education Department, Mr. Eitel spent 18 months as a top lawyer for a company facing multiple government investigations, including one that ended with a settlement of more than $30 million over deceptive student lending.”

The most provocative part of this article is the fact that Robert Eitel, who will be heading the review was affiliated with a company that operates for-profit colleges known for deceptive student lending practices.



Scientists Create Artificial Womb!

Dear Commons Community,

Scientists have created an “artificial womb” that has been successfully tested on fetal lambs.  The same scientists hope that a similar “womb” can be used on human fetuses within a decade.  As reported by various media:

“So far the device has only been tested on fetal lambs. A study published Tuesday involving eight animals found the device appears effective at enabling very premature fetuses to develop normally for about a month.

“We’ve been extremely successful in replacing the conditions in the womb in our lamb model,” says Alan Flake, a fetal surgeon at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who led the study published in the journal Nature Communications.

“They’ve had normal growth. They’ve had normal lung maturation. They’ve had normal brain maturation. They’ve had normal development in every way that we can measure it,” Flake says.

Flake says the group hopes to test the device on very premature human babies within three to five years.

“What we tried to do is develop a system that mimics the environment of the womb as closely as possible,” Flake says. “It’s basically an artificial womb.”

Inside an artificial womb

The device consists of a clear plastic bag filled with synthetic amniotic fluid. A machine outside the bag is attached to the umbilical cord to function like a placenta, providing nutrition and oxygen to the blood and removing carbon dioxide.

“The whole idea is to support normal development; to re-create everything that the mother does in every way that we can to support normal fetal development and maturation,” Flake says.

Other researchers praised the advance, saying it could help thousands of babies born very prematurely each year, if tests in humans were to prove successful.

Jay Greenspan, a pediatrician at Thomas Jefferson University, called the device a “technological miracle” that marks “a huge step to try to do something that we’ve been trying to do for many years.”

The device could also help scientists learn more about normal fetal development, says Thomas Shaffer a professor of physiology and pediatrics at Temple University.

“I think this is a major breakthrough,” Shaffer says.

The device in the fetal lamb experiment is kept in a dark, warm room where researchers can play the sounds of the mother’s heart for the lamb fetus and monitor the fetus with ultrasounds.

Previous research has shown that lamb fetuses are good models for human fetal development.

“If you can just use this device as a bridge for the fetus then you can have a dramatic impact on the outcomes of extremely premature infants,” Flake says. “This would be a huge deal.”

But others say the device raises ethical issues, including many questions about whether it would ever be acceptable to test it on humans.

“There are all kinds of possibilities for stress and pain with not, at the beginning, a whole lot of likelihood for success,” says Dena Davis, a bioethicist at Lehigh University.

Flake says ethical concerns need to be balanced against the risk of death and severe disabilities babies often suffer when they are born very prematurely. A normal pregnancy lasts about 40 weeks. A human device would be designed for those born 23 or 24 weeks into pregnancy.

Only about half of such babies survive and, of those that do, about 90 percent suffer severe complications, such as cerebral palsy, mental retardation, seizures, paralysis, blindness and deafness, Flake says.

About 30,000 babies are born earlier than 26 weeks into pregnancy each year in the United States, according to the researchers.

Potential ethical concerns

Davis worries that the device is not necessarily a good solution for human fetuses.

“If it’s a difference between a baby dying rather peacefully and a baby dying under conditions of great stress and discomfort then, no, I don’t think it’s better,” Davis says.

“If it’s a question of a baby dying versus a baby being born who then needs to live its entire life in an institution, then I don’t think that’s better. Some parents might think that’s better, but many would not,” she says.

And even if it works, Davis also worries about whether this could blur the line between a fetus and a baby.hen

“Up to now, we’ve been either born or not born. This would be halfway born, or something like that. Think about that in terms of our abortion politics,” she says.

This sounds like an incredible biotechnological breakthrough but one that surely will have serious ethical ramifications when used with humans.


Frank Bruni Looks at USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative!

Dear Commons Community,

In his New York Times column today, Frank Bruni, writes about USC’s Neighborhood Academic Initiative (N.A.I.) which has been the vehicle to a higher education for more than 900 students.  Here is an excerpt:

“If you go by the odds, Sierra Williams shouldn’t be in college, let alone at a highly selective school like the University of Southern California.

Many kids in her low-income neighborhood here don’t get to or through the 12th grade. Her single mother isn’t college-educated. Neither are Sierra’s two brothers, one of whom is in prison. Her sister has only a two-year associate degree.

But when Sierra was in the sixth grade, teachers spotted her potential and enrolled her in the Neighborhood Academic Initiative, or N.A.I., a program through which U.S.C. prepares underprivileged kids who live relatively near its South Los Angeles campus for higher education. She repeatedly visited U.S.C., so she could envision herself in such an environment and reach for it. She took advanced classes. Her mother, like the parents or guardians of all students in the N.A.I., got counseling on turning college into a reality for her child.

Sierra, 20, just finished her junior year at U.S.C. An engineering major, she’s already enrolled in a master’s program. “My end goal is to get my Ph.D.,” she told me when I met her recently. She wants to be a professor and, through her example as a black woman in engineering, correct the paucity of minorities in the field.

It’s now some two decades since the first class of seniors in the N.A.I. graduated from high school and went on to college. More than 900 kids have used the N.A.I. as an on ramp to higher education — more than a third of them ended up at U.S.C. — and that number is growing quickly as the N.A.I. expands.

The public school that many N.A.I. enrollees attend, the Foshay Learning Center, was responsible for more new arrivals on the U.S.C. campus last fall than any other public or private high school in America. Nineteen N.A.I. alumni started as freshmen; 11 more transferred from other colleges.

And N.A.I. doesn’t even represent the whole of U.S.C.’s efforts to address inadequate socioeconomic diversity at the country’s most celebrated colleges. Although U.S.C. has often been caricatured as a rich kids’ playground — its nickname in some quarters is the University of Spoiled Children — it outpaces most of its peers in trying to lift disadvantaged kids to better lives. Those peers should learn from its example.

According to a recently published study whose data was just a few years old, 38 of America’s top colleges, including five from the Ivy League, had more students from families in the top 1 percent of income earners (about $630,000 annually and above) than from those in the bottom 60 percent ($65,000 and below). There are many reasons, principally a failure to identify and recruit disadvantaged kids whose abilities and accomplishments make them perfectly eligible for elite colleges with low acceptance rates. (U.S.C.’s is now about 16.5 percent.)”

Bruni comments that N.A.I.  is the type of program that should be emulated at other selective colleges and universities. I agree!


NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio Proposes Free All-Day Preschool for 3-Year Olds!

Dear Commons Community,

Coming on the heels of New York State Governor Mario Cuomo’s free tuition policy passed earlier this month for all students (whose family incomes are less than $125,000.) attending a state public university, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed yesterday free preschool for all 3-year olds.  As reported by the New York Times:

“Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Monday that New York City would offer free, full-day preschool to all 3-year-olds within four years, saying that he was building on the success of the city’s prekindergarten program for 4-year-olds and that it was time to go further.

New York would be one of few cities in the country to offer free preschool to every 3-year-old, including Washington. But New York’s program would dwarf that city’s effort, which enrolls only 5,700 3-year-olds. In New York, officials expect to serve 62,000 children a year.

Implementing the universal prekindergarten program for 4-year-olds was the centerpiece of Mr. de Blasio’s campaign for mayor four years ago and is considered to be one of the biggest accomplishments of his first term. So it is not surprising that, with his re-election effort starting, he is seeking to amplify the achievement….”

… In the often-divided world of education, the long-term benefit of early childhood education, particularly for low-income children, is one of the few things most experts agree on. Politicians on both the left and the right embrace the idea of expanding access to preschool, a rarity among educational initiatives. A number of states, including Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma and West Virginia, offer universal prekindergarten for 4-year-olds.

Studies have found the biggest effect when low-income children are put in high-quality education programs soon after birth. A study by James J. Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago and a Nobel laureate, followed participants in two randomized experiments conducted in North Carolina in the 1970s through age 35. It found that youngsters who attended a high-quality early childhood program completed more years of education and had higher incomes as adults than did children in the control group, who either did not go to preschool or were in lower-quality programs. The men were less likely to use drugs or have high blood pressure.

Mr. de Blasio’s new plan, which he called 3-K for All, comes with many challenges, not least that the mayor said the city would need $700 million from the state and the federal government to be able to reach all children.

“I assure you it will take very hard work,” Mr. de Blasio said on Monday at a public school in the Bronx. He said it would be “harder than pre-K.”

Congratulations to both Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio for taking these extraordinary education initiatives for our state and city.


Homeless Student Population Growing in New York City Public Schools!

Dear Commons Community,

The New York City Independent Budget Office (IBO) has just issued an update on an earlier report exploring the homeless student population in NYC public schools.  Both the original report and this update were  prepared by an alumna of our PhD Program in Urban Education, Liza Pappas.  Here is an excerpt from the update:

“The number of students in the city’s public schools who lived for some part of the school year in New York’s homeless shelters during school year 2015-2016 rose by more than 4,000, or 15 percent, over the preceding year to nearly 33,000. IBO recently explored  the multilayered impediments to classroom success faced by students living in the city’s shelter system, as well as the substantial challenges faced by schools serving large populations of shelter residents.

Many students living in shelters are concentrated in a relatively small number of the city’s schools. Until last year’s addition of $10.3 million, schools did not receive additional funding to aid their homeless students. The Mayor’s recent initiative to move families out of hotels and cluster sites and into newly created shelters close to their prior communities may add to the concentration in some schools and reduce it at others. Two major highlights of this update:

  • In 2015-2016, over 40 percent (13,729) of students in the shelter system attended school in the Bronx. This represents a 44 percent increase in shelter residents attending schools in the Bronx since 2011-2012. 
  • The number of homeless students attending school rose 18 percent in Brooklyn, 21 percent in Manhattan, and 50 percent in Queens over the same five-year period. Staten Island, the borough with the fewest students living in shelters, saw their numbers double, an increase of 105 percent. 

The update makes clear that the homeless student population is growing and reaching historic proportions especially in the Bronx and Brooklyn.

Good work, Liza, for bringing attention to this issue.




Kristina M. Johnson, an Engineer, to be Next Chancellor of SUNY!


Dear Commons Community,

Kristina M. Johnson, an engineer who served as undersecretary in the United States Energy Department before founding a hydroelectric company, will be appointed chancellor of the State University of New York.  She  will succeed Nancy L. Zimpher.  As reported by the New York Times:

“Kristina M. Johnson, an engineer who developed technology critical to 3-D movies and served as undersecretary in the United States Energy Department will be appointed chancellor of the State University of New York.

SUNY has 29 four-year colleges and universities and 30 community colleges, which serve a total of roughly 440,000 full- and part-time students. Assuming Dr. Johnson’s appointment is confirmed by the board of trustees on Monday afternoon, she will arrive at a time when state funding as a percentage of operating costs is down from a decade ago. At the same time, colleges are under pressure to increase access and graduation rates for low-income students.

Dr. Johnson, 59, said in an interview that, in addition to promoting excellence in research and teaching, she planned to focus on environmental sustainability and on creating an individualized model of education. That model would help students identify their interests early on in college and then take courses that would prepare them for their ideal career, she said.

 “What’s important is that we help our students find their purpose and their passion,” she said.

Dr. Johnson will succeed Nancy L. Zimpher, SUNY’s first female chancellor, who is credited with having elevated the system during her eight-year tenure. Dr. Zimpher, 70, will step down in June. Dr. Johnson will begin on Sept. 5. The SUNY board will appoint an interim leader to serve from June to September.

In addition to being an entrepreneur, Dr. Johnson is also a seasoned administrator. As dean of the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University from 1999 to 2007, she raised the school’s prestige, expanding the size of the faculty and the number of graduate students, tripling research expenditures and building a 322,000-square-foot interdisciplinary teaching and research center. She attracted a $35 million gift from Edmund T. Pratt Jr., a 1947 graduate who had been the chairman and chief executive of Pfizer. At the time, it was the second-largest financial gift in the university’s history.

She reduced the number of undergraduates who dropped out of the engineering program, in part by overhauling the curriculum to give students earlier exposure to exciting topics in the field. She created a fellowship that allowed roughly a third of undergraduates to spend 18 months doing research in faculty members’ labs.

The fellowship, she said, grew out of a concern that many students were narrowly focused on a single career path and a desire to give them “more of an introduction to the joy of engineering.”

Surveying the students when they graduated, she found that the careers they were pursuing were richer than “a single one- or two-track, which is what they were on before,” she said.

Rob Clark, the provost and senior vice president for research at the University of Rochester, who served as Dr. Johnson’s senior associate dean at the Pratt School and then succeeded her as dean, described her as an inspirational leader. When she started, he said, the engineering school lagged the university as a whole in rankings and general stature. In addition to raising $250 million and tripling the school’s teaching and research space, he said, she fostered a culture in which faculty more often pursued grants as teams, rather than individually, and encouraged entrepreneurship.

 “We had many more faculty engaged in start-up activity,” Dr. Clark said. “That grew greatly when she was there and continues at the institution since her departure.”

He added, “All of the things you would have said couldn’t have been done in that length of time, she got them done.”

Dr. Johnson was born in St. Louis and grew up in Denver. An avid athlete, she wanted to play lacrosse in high school, but her school did not have a girls’ team, so she practiced with the boys. As an undergraduate at Stanford, she majored in electrical engineering, played varsity field hockey and started a women’s lacrosse club team that later became a varsity team. She also got her master’s degree and doctorate from Stanford.

From 1985 to 1999, she was an assistant professor and then a full professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and from 1994 to 1998, she directed a National Science Foundation-supported research center at the University of Colorado and Colorado State University. During this period, she also started two companies. She holds 42 United States patents. Among other things, she invented a camera that can pick up cancerous or precancerous cells on a cervical smear and technology that for the first time allowed for high contrast and faithful color in 3-D films, contributing to movies like “Chicken Little” and “Avatar.”

From 2007 to 2009, she was the provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Johns Hopkins University. In 2009, she was confirmed as under secretary of energy, overseeing a $10.5 billion program that included nuclear energy, fossil fuels, renewable energy and waste management. She stepped down at the end of 2010 and started a company that builds and modernizes hydroelectric plants.

While overseeing the design of the Fitzpatrick Center for Interdisciplinary Engineering, Medicine and Applied Sciences at Duke, Dr. Johnson said, she conducted research on how to create a culture that leads to cross-disciplinary breakthroughs.

Besides vision and financial resources, she said, “the most important thing is you’ve got to have a place with really good coffee and food.”

Dr. Johnson sounds like a winner.  Good luck to her!