Pomp and intolerance

Magnolia blossoms signify May, which in turn sprouts college graduations and their annual byproduct: commencement speeches.

The irony is as biting as a rice field mosquito.

This year’s headlines regarding institutions of higher education have been dominated by college students and administrations thwarting, bullying and canceling speakers of all sorts. So prevalent has the practice of unruly and unreasonable on-campus opposition to reasoned discourse become that the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression modified its 25-year tradition of “Muzzle” awards.

Normally, the center selects eight to 12 recipients which are held up as oppressors of free speech. They typically include elected and appointed officials, judges, lawmakers, regulatory agencies, organizations, administrations, governments, schools and colleges.

Last year, in light of “an epidemic of anti-speech activity” across America’s campuses, Jefferson Muzzles were awarded exclusively to 50 colleges and universities. Thankfully, none of them call Arkansas home.

But the trajectory of the alarming trend is astonishing. In 12 of the first 14 years of awarding Jefferson Muzzles, recipients included no colleges at all. From 1992 until 2005, a mere four colleges or universities received the dubious awards. Over the next decade, only 13 colleges and/or their administrations were given Jefferson Muzzles.

That a crop of 50 could crowd out every other category in 2016 casts a dispiriting complexion on the state of academia.

This year’s lone higher ed Jefferson Muzzle “winner” is Pierce College in California, which threatened a student with expulsion if he did not stop passing out Spanish-language copies of the U.S. Constitution on campus. The student was told to get a permit and then directed to limit his distribution to a “free speech zone.”

That zone comprises 616 square feet—out of a 426-acre campus. Math majors might quickly calculate that Pierce College thus devotes 0.003 percent of its real estate to free speech.

The Jefferson Muzzles called out half a dozen colleges in 2016 for either disrupting or disinviting commencement speakers, and the TJ Center now has another prime candidate for next year’s consideration.

Baccalaureate candidates at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona, Fla., booed and turned their back on Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at this week’s commencement ceremony.

There had been protests prior to her speech, criticizing her for favoring the use of tax funds for children to attend private religious schools—a curious stance considering all of the Bethune-Cookman graduates were students at a private religious college, and most benefited from tax-funded financial aid.

Modern commencements have migrated away from the solemn occasions they once were, but most still preserve a modicum of respectful conduct and mannerisms.

Not so at Bethune-Cookman. The heckling got so bad that university president Edison Jackson halted DeVos early on to sternly address the class of 2017. “If this behavior doesn’t cease,” he said, “your degrees will be mailed to you.”

Four years of collegiate training seems like more than enough to foster a full understanding about the critical roles free speech and the open exchange of ideas play in securing liberty.

DeVos tried to speak of the knowledge gained from conversing with those with whom one disagrees. The jeering students didn’t seem to realize that scholarship and intolerance are utterly incompatible. An aptitude for study is irreconcilable with prejudiced closed-mindedness.

The opposite of a scholar isn’t a dunce, but a bigot.

Fool’s caps would have been more appropriate than mortarboards for the Bethune-Cookman seniors who chose to face away from the stage containing not only DeVos but their own university faculty.

Sadly, the behavior on display was most disrespectful of Bethune-Cookman’s founder, Mary McLeod Bethune. As a child of freed slave parents, she recognized at a young age the vital importance of literacy, which led her to devote her life to learning.

She began her teaching career at a missionary school, and in 1904 founded the Daytona Literary and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls, which would eventually become Bethune-Cookman. Her fervent faith was a driving passion with which she imbued her students: the rigorous curriculum designed to achieve self-sufficiency for her girls began at 5:30 a.m. with Bible study.

Bethune couldn’t afford to turn her back on people she disagreed with. Not unless she wanted to abandon her vision and life’s work. Indeed, many of her wealthy benefactors started out as skeptics of the school’s value and future; she won them over by engaging them.

The story goes that when she got word of a white Daytona resident who pointed a rifle at some of her students as they walked past his house, she responded with courtesy rather than confrontation.

Her gift for garnering good will through dialogue soon resulted in that same man pledging to protect “Old Mary” and her students with his life.

Perhaps the most dismaying aspect of the Bethune-Cookman University incident is seeing college graduates, standing at the threshold of life, succumb so willingly to fear. How fragile their conviction about beliefs and principles must be if it cannot withstand even a wisp of voiced disagreement.

It takes courage to be at the vanguard of free speech. Maybe that should become a required course.


D.O. done right

This morning, the inaugural class of the New York Institute of Technology’s College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University held its first White Coat Ceremony in Jonesboro.

The celebratory ritual marked more than just a rite-of-passage student transition from pre-clinical study to clinical health sciences. It also highlighted the first Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.) medical school in the state, born of a unique private-public partnership that not only saved as much as $50 million in development costs, but also launched the school without additional tax-fund requirements.

Most importantly, the NYIT and A-State joint venture creates a crux at which health education investment aligns directly with an area of great medical needs. The counties bordering the Mississippi River in Northeast Arkansas have some of the highest incidences of chronic illness in the state—and their population is woefully underserved by doctors.

On Monday I got a chance to tour the new D.O. school, which is housed in the spectacularly renovated and updated Wilson Hall on the A-State campus.

The juxtaposition is just amazing: the circa-1932 stately facade and original art deco architecture, sporting an ultra-advanced, state-of-the-art interior that looks like the sick bay in Star Trek‘s Enterprise starship. It splendidly marries past and future, legacy and modernity.

Interior walls were removed, and the electrical and forced-air systems reworked, to transform traditional classroom spaces into specialized simulation emergency and operating rooms, clinical learning rooms, an anatomy lab and much more.

The training of M.D. and D.O. students is essentially the same, but the osteopathic manipulative medicine (OMM) lab highlights the additional principles and practices taught in D.O. schools, which regard the body as an interrelated, dynamic unit of function and structure with an innate healing ability.

The OMM lab is visually stunning when empty; in a few days it will be teeming with enthusiastic physicians-in-training who will transform the region’s health-care landscape much like their school has transformed Wilson Hall.

It’s fitting that the first new medical school in the state in over a century, unveiled in an historic university landmark, is also among the most technologically advanced. Every student is issued a souped-up iPad on which lectures, textbooks and myriad other class and study information is housed. In lounges, break rooms and study areas all over the school, large HD televisions are embedded with Apple TV connectivity and “airplay” so students can wirelessly congregate and collaborate.

The classrooms are marvels of modern advancements, with touchscreens driving large TV monitors that can display incredibly detailed anatomical data in the highest-definition resolution.

I fondly remember watching plays in the old Wilson auditorium, with its theater-red velvet seating. In its place now is an expansive lecture hall, laid out with sleek workspace tables facing an enormous screen (not as big as those seen at the recent political conventions, but close) onto which live links with instructors in New York can be streamed real-time.

The basement section where students used to eat and gather near the jukebox in the old Wigwam is now a gleaming, uber-connected example of innovative renovation. It’s a second lecture hall, sizable enough to accommodate all the students in an entire medical class, which will be a necessity when the next wave of students enrolls in 2017. Thanks to strategic HDTV placements, every seat has a great view even though structural support columns had to remain in place.

The debut D.O. class is a full-slate 120 students, with a waiting list of 150 more. Even more notably, half of those students hail from Arkansas. And osteopathic school statistics are definitive: students from non-urban areas who attend medical schools nearby tend to stay and practice in the same areas.

Digital connectivity is the enabler of remote learning, and walking through the new D.O. school and hearing about the cascading tiers of connection, it became clear this is a seminal education event. Major telecom providers collaborated to provide a direct fiber-optic line to link the Jonesboro and New York campuses, and the latest wireless and touchscreen integrated technology connects students with classrooms, lessons, training and textbook data.

A couple of decades ago, all this would have been little more than a wishful dream. The fact that it’s now a highly functional reality—that rural Arkansas medical students are hard-wired to Manhattan physician-professors in a full-service post-graduate program—indicates the potential to also transform rural K-12 public education.

A couple of decades from now (maybe sooner), schools in small towns could be using the same digital connectivity to link to urban campuses, and sharing specialty teachers and courses instead of having to expensively replicate them for smaller student populations.

State investments in education could be spread further among all districts, creating more access to better curricula while also preserving small schools—and their towns.

Imagine harnessing the most ardent education advocates in each small community behind a new, innovative vision of learning technology that erases geographic isolation as a barrier.

Vision, teamwork and community built the fabulous new D.O. school in Jonesboro. The same ingredients can also build a fantastic rural education system in Arkansas.

Remediation ruminations

Maybe you saw the jubilant news in the paper earlier this week.

Remediation rates for first-time students entering public colleges in Arkansas plummeted by 1.7 percentage points between 2014 and 2015, from 41.4 percent to 39.7.

There is some merit to the notion that any progress is always welcome, even if it reflects a statistical blip rather than real movement. But the four-out-of-10 overall remediation issue for Arkansans (which becomes six-out-of-10 for two-year public colleges with looser enrollment policies) warrants more than just tracking data and reporting the rate.

Remediation should be widely recognized as waste.

All states invest heavily in a high school graduate’s education, which presumably includes training to read and do math. So when large numbers of high school graduates can’t pass muster on the ACT test in reading and mathematics, it’s not just a problem for the colleges seeking to enroll them. The bigger problem is what went awry with the large sums spent on their K-12 learning.

Over 13 years of public education, Arkansas will spend roughly $122,000 on each student (Census Bureau data show an average annual per pupil expenditure in Arkansas of $9,394). That’s a lot of money, time, effort and other resources to turn out a graduating field of students every year where the majority hasn’t mastered reading and math.

And, as you might have suspected, Arkansas high school graduates struggle more than almost every other state.

Thankfully, we’re not the worst state at producing college-ready students. But we are far too close to the bottom for comfort—or for progress in an information-age economy.

Average per-pupil spending is just that: It’s the quotient achieved by dividing the number of students in a large public education system by the sum of all combined expenditures. That means it has little relevance in terms of tying specific student spending to individual under- or over-performance. Yet individually is precisely how students learn.

Teachers understand this. Education bureaucrats and analysts often forget it.

When 40 percent overall of first-time students at Arkansas public colleges and universities need remediation, that’s simultaneously a system failure and also a huge number of classroom failures.

Teachers can tell us what’s not working in classrooms, but they’re not being asked in any formal or strategic way. Yet purely systemic reforms exclusive of refocused teacher-student dynamics will never produce solutions.

Let’s translate the situation to something familiar. Who would continue to patronize a restaurant where four out of 10 meals were unpalatable? Or buy groceries at a store where four out of 10 items were spoiled?

We’ve grown numb to a situation in which four out of 10 high school graduates are unable to read, write and do arithmetic at basic college entry levels.

And that’s just those trying to go to college. We have no idea of the reading and math proficiencies of high school graduates who don’t enroll in higher education courses, but it’s hard to imagine it would improve the average.

And while most other states have lower remediation rates, we must beware the fallacious instinct to merely try and emulate them. It’s silly to copy another state’s policies and practices if that state is too dissimilar—socioeconomically, demographically, geographically—from Arkansas.

We’re still a primarily rural state, with high child poverty rates. Bedrock research has indicated smaller schools serve such populations more effectively, but we’ve spent the better part of the last decade shutting them down. Like others, we’ve thrown money at education in response to red herring alarmists. But unlike wealthier states, we can ill afford such waste and our students have suffered profoundly as a result.

There’s a fundamental grass-roots element to education that must be nurtured, not ignored. The true common core of learning isn’t testing standards—which only measure outcomes after the fact—but the age-old foundations that mightily affect input and effort: family and community.

The state never really provides an education. All it can provide is the opportunity and the tools for the people to educate themselves. It’s the old “lead a horse to water” concept; learning can no more be force-fed than it can be injected like a vaccine.

Education is a joint effort, requiring essential responsibilities among parents. It’s a rare school that can overcome the challenges created by a community that collectively fails at parenting its children.

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson from two centuries ago this very year, if a society expects to educate children, independent of parental involvement, it expects what never was and never will be.

Remediation is a red flag, all right. But repairing the problem with college refresher courses is expensive and ineffective. K-12 reform is required, and it must do two things: empower teachers and address parents’ responsibilities.

My apologies

Last week, I misspoke when I claimed that ride-sharing phenomenon Uber served only Fayetteville and Little Rock, as a reader/rider in Northwest Arkansas promptly reminded me.

She said there was “Ubering aplenty” going on in Rogers, Bentonville, Bella Vista and Springdale.

I’m glad to hear it, and glad to set the record straight.