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Leave for a president raises question of whether college leaders should hug employees

Inside Higher Ed - Mon, 02/19/2018 - 01:00

Since early this month, President Ron Langrell has been on paid administrative leave from Bates Technical College, in Washington State. No one has said why he is on leave. But on Friday, The News Tribune revealed the reason.

The college and its board are investigating charges that Langrell has been intimidating and demeaning employees. One of the charges is that he engages in "unwanted hugging," and the investigation was prompted by a complaint from an employee who described being hugged by the president in November when their paths crossed in a hallway. He has acknowledged that he hugged her, and that he may have said that she "looked nice," but he has denied the employee's statement that he said she had "sexy" legs.

The interaction was caught on security cameras, and The News Tribune published video from which the above photo comes. The video suggests that the woman at one point hugged him back, but she told investigators (and colleagues to whom she spoke immediately after) that she was shaken and upset by a hug she said she did not seek, from the top official at her college. “I was shocked that, with all the news about sexual harassment, the president of the college thought it was somehow OK to hug me,” she told the investigator, according to a summary of documents by the newspaper. Those documents indicated that a number of other women employed at the college complained of unwanted hugs and what they considered inappropriate comments.

The president's lawyer told investigators that "Dr. Langrell was shocked and disheartened to learn of the recent allegations and the incidents reaching back to 2012 and 2013 … To the extent any complainant suffered due to his uninformed or unknowing actions, he accepts that his conduct must change and only wishes he was adequately advised on it sooner and given the opportunity to learn and adjust his behavior.”

Langrell and the college did not respond to requests from Inside Higher Ed for comment.

But several experts on college presidencies did. While not commenting on Langrell, they said that, as a general rule, handshakes are a better default greeting for a president to use than a hug. There are situations where a hug may be appropriate, they said, but they are the exception.

And while the Me Too movement has people more aware of gender and power dynamics than many have been in the past, these experts stressed that the issue isn't new.

"Unwelcome hugging has, of course, always been a problem," said Susan Resneck Pierce, president emerita of the University of Puget Sound, a consultant to colleges and presidents, and author of On Being Presidential: A Guide for College and University Leaders.

"I would advocate that, under normal circumstances, presidents greet their faculty and staff colleagues and their students with handshakes rather than hugs," she said.

Hugs may be appropriate, she said, at "public moments of celebration as commencement, retirement events and award ceremonies," but then "only when they have reason to believe that such hugs would be welcome." Further, she said, students, faculty members and other employees sometimes come to presidents "for advice and even comfort in moments of distress." In such situations, "a hug might be especially welcome and a handshake an inappropriate and distancing gesture." As with most things presidential, she said, "it is a matter of judgment."

But she said that the Bates Technical College case is an important reminder that "college presidents are always in positions of authority and power when it comes to all members of their campus community."

Roger Hull, president emeritus of Union College of New York, a consultant and author of Lead or Leave: A Primer for College Presidents and Board Members, said via email that he never addressed the hug issue in his writing. Sometimes he hugged faculty members and students when they hugged him in his office. But Hull said presidents need to always be aware of perceptions.

Common sense, he said, is the key rule. "My office door was always open, which meant not only that folks could approach me but also no one could ever accuse me of anything because we were not behind closed doors and conversations could be heard by my assistant," he said.

Judith S. White, president and executive director of HERS: Leadership Training for Women in Higher Education (and a regular contributor to Inside Higher Ed), said via email that she has noted differing expectations about hugging for people from different parts of the country. As a Southerner, she said, she sees in the region "high cultural expectations for hugging as a greeting." But she said she has "learned to use the two-handed handshake. Maybe one hand on the person's arm while I speak."

"Hugging is a pretty intimate physical gesture," she said. "It can be read as connecting or as controlling. The issue is whether a person with more status and power -- a president -- is attentive to how those around them respond. If they are not paying attention and just assert that they mean well, they are invading other people's space against their wishes."

White noted that she realizes that "presidents greet lots of people and have to make quick reads." But for that reason, she added that "they are better off not presuming a hug is the only way to convey a welcome."

Joey King, president of Lyon College and co-author of How to Run a College, said that context matters a lot, especially at a residential college. "At residential colleges and universities, the students are literally our wards," he said. "The younger ones, 17-18, are more child than adult. I have been in situations where they have literally cried on my shoulder. That would probably have been a bad time to insist on a handshake."

But King was quick to add that those situations are "more the exception than the rule." The bottom line, he said, is that when interactions involves presidents, there is "always a power dynamic at play."

King said that he knows "plenty of huggers, male and female, who are presidents and provosts." He said that they "tend to overdo it, in my opinion. My advice would be to stick with more professional salutatory behavior but for exceptional circumstances."

Judith Block McLaughlin, senior lecturer on education at Harvard University and education chair of the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents, which runs every summer, said "experienced presidents who teach in the seminar often warn new presidents that their behavior will be closely observed and interpreted, with meanings assigned that are far different than were intended. Hugging certainly is one current example."

She said that "we haven’t talked specifically about hugging, but it does seem like a topic worthy of conversation this summer."

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Proposed Education Department reorganization would merge higher ed-related offices, positions

Inside Higher Ed - Mon, 02/19/2018 - 01:00

A Department of Education reorganization plan whose broad themes were shared with employees last week would collapse multiple units with higher ed functions into one office whose leader would answer directly to the secretary.

The plan also calls for eliminating the office of the under secretary, which has played a key role in shaping higher education policy during the previous two presidential administrations.

Those moves would be part of a larger shake-up of the department that officials say is intended to make lines of decision making more clear, improve policy coordination and reduce the total number of political appointees. It would also be Education Secretary Betsy DeVos's clearest imprint yet on the agency after spending much of the last year reversing Obama administration initiatives.

"You can view this as a vision document," a department spokeswoman, Liz Hill, said via email. "It’s the beginning of a conversation with staff, the public and Congress about the secretary’s vision to make the department more efficient and responsive on behalf of students, parents, educators and taxpayers."

The overhaul plan came about after President Trump last year issued an executive order directing the Office of Management and Budget to propose a reorganization of the federal government to "eliminate unnecessary agencies, components of agencies, and agency programs."

To comply with the order, the Department of Education last May set up an internal committee to take advice on potential changes and outline how to overhaul the agency. A separate committee within the department has, meanwhile, met to identify regulations to propose for elimination.

Some of the changes being proposed by the department would require congressional approval. Others, such as the elimination of the office of the under secretary, the department could accomplish on its own.

Perhaps just as critically as that step, the plan calls for rolling the Office of Postsecondary Education and the Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education into one Office of Postsecondary Education and Lifelong Learning. The assistant secretary heading that office would answer directly to the secretary. That would mean going from three top political appointees down to one. 

Jared Bass, senior counsel for education and strategy at New America and a former senior policy adviser at the department, noted that the White House budget released last week cited administrative capacity as its rationale for proposals to eliminate several programs within the department. Yet at the same time the department is seeking to cut political staff positions, he said.

"That seems counterintuitive to me," he said. "Political and career staffers by design work together." 

But two former high-ranking officials at the department said that taking the step to consolidate postsecondary offices may serve the department well.

Vickie L. Schray, former acting deputy assistant secretary for higher education programs under President George W. Bush, said that consolidating the two postsecondary offices would send a clear message about the need to recognize and value multiple pathways to student success -- and would be consistent with the administration's stated priorities.

"Bringing these two offices together could create some new efficiencies in the awarding and administration of grants and better align efforts to increase access to postsecondary education and improve programs and services," she said.

David Bergeron, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who previously served as acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education under President Obama, said it was hard to judge the proposal without seeing the full plan. But he said combining the Office of Postsecondary Education and the Office of Career, Technical and Adult Education wasn't necessarily a bad idea.

"What OPE has long lacked is a strong relationship with state government actors, which OCTAE has long had. Using that as a lever to strengthen relationship with states would be helpful," he said. "Therefore, eliminating the assistant secretary for CTE isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It would, however, eliminate a voice specific to career and technical education and potentially for states in policy decisions."

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Two high school students killed in Florida had been admitted to college

Inside Higher Ed - Mon, 02/19/2018 - 01:00

The mass shooting at a Florida high school last week is hitting two colleges hard. Two of the victims had been admitted to and committed to attend their institutions. They were the oldest of the high school students who were killed.

Nicholas Dworet, 17, was a champion swimmer with Olympic ambitions. He was a recruited athlete who was going to enroll at the University of Indianapolis this fall.

Robert L. Manuel, president at Indianapolis, said in a statement that he (and the coach who recruited Dworet) had been in touch with the teenager's family. "Nick’s death also reminds us of the far-reaching impact of these national acts of violence. We will find ways in the coming days to help Nick’s family -- and I hope our Greyhound family can come together to engage the questions raised by these shootings and ensure that our community continues to be a safe place for all of our students, faculty and staff," Manuel said.

Meadow Pollack, 18, was a senior who planned to attend Lynn University. The university's admissions office posted this statement on Facebook: "Our thoughts go out to the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School victims, to their families and friends, and especially to the Pollack family. Meadow Pollack, an 18-year-old from Parkland, Florida, was admitted to Lynn University and was due to join us this fall. She was a lovely young woman and full of energy. We were very much looking forward to having her on campus. We will keep Meadow in our hearts and memories."

Past tragedies involving gun violence have prompted discussion of the role of higher ed in studying and preventing gun violence.

  • In October, the mass shooting in Las Vegas led to discussion of why federal agencies avoid studies that might illuminate policy on gun violence. A key reason is part of an appropriations bill enacted in 1996, provisions of which remain law. The key provision bars the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from using funds to support research that “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” Social science groups have long pushed to repeal the 1996 provisions, although Republicans in Congress have resisted any change. The American Educational Research Association, in the wake of the Florida school shooting, renewed its call for a change in the law.
  • In 2012, in the wake of the murders of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, two open letters from college presidents, calling for national action on gun violence, circulated and attracted hundreds of signatures. But as one of the organizers noted 18 months later, no policies changed.
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