Jan 262015


By Elizabeth Shestak
January 25, 2015

In North Carolina, all but three cities east of Interstate 95 depend on groundwater. In the mid-1980s, Ralph Heath realized that overdevelopment of that region, known as the central coastal plain, was going to lead to major issues with the precious aquifer that lies under 15 counties.

Heath, a retired hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, spent the next five years recruiting fellow scientists to educate state regulators and politicians about the inevitable danger to that water supply. The result, said Richard Spruill, an East Carolina University professor and one of the scientists involved, was one of the most comprehensive water management plans ever passed in the United States.

The plan, say colleagues and friends, was just one of countless examples in which Heath used his expertise to better his community.

Heath, 89, died this month. One of his principal legacies is the book “Basic Ground-Water Hydrology,” the most printed publication put out by the Geological Survey.

“He’s one of, in my view, the gods of hydrology,” said Mike Hoover, retired N.C. State soils professor and longtime friend.

Still, Heath is remembered for far more than his knowledge of water and rock.

Heath was the son of a Lenoir County tenant farmer. He was raised priming tobacco. His parents did not progress far past fourth grade and were barely functionally literate. They could only afford one pair of shoes a year, and Heath had to repeat the eighth grade because of an ingrown toenail.

This was how Heath came to be eligible for the V-12 Navy College Training Program. He would not have met its requirements had he graduated from high school on time. In his autobiography he wrote, “How could I have been so lucky?”

At 17, with his parents’ permission, he enlisted in the military, attending Midshipmen School at Columbia University, meeting his future wife, Martha, whom he called “the cutest little blue-eyed blonde” he’d ever seen, and touring the Pacific on mine-sweeping missions.

After the war, he finished his bachelor of science degree in geology at UNC-Chapel Hill. The discipline was related to the agricultural life of his youth but would not bring him back to the fields as a farmer. He soon joined the U.S. Geological Survey, where he specialized in hydrology.

During his tenure at the USGS, he wrote or co-authored more than 70 publications, working with some of the forefathers of hydrology, a field that really came into its own in the early part of the 20th century, Spruill said. Heath was acting district engineer in Tallahassee, Fla.; district geologist in Albany, N.Y., for New York and southern New England; district chief of New York and district chief in Raleigh.

Upon retirement, he set upon the next phase of his career, teaching at UNC-Chapel Hill, East Carolina, Duke and N.C. State. One of the scientists Health mentored, local hydrologist Kevin Martin, points to how impressive this list was, particularly for a professor without a graduate degree.

“He was the definition of a mentor – always there for you when you need help or guidance,” Martin said. “He believed real life experiences trumped book knowledge or theory.”

Heath met Mike Hoover while offering his guidance on a water usage problem in the northeastern part of North Carolina. Hoover marveled at Heath’s work from the beginning, and he marvels today at the two hydrogeologic maps Heath created in the late 1980s that document the groundwater patterns of all of North America – a feat that no one else, to his knowledge, has undertaken.

“He communicated through these maps. He communicated through these publications,” Hoover said. While many scientists make strong researchers, not all are able to communicate their knowledge to others. Colleagues say Heath was remarkably adept at both.

For all his professional glory, Heath was the consummate family man, said his daughter, Sue Johnson.

“At home he was very much present with us,” she said.

When his first child, William, was born with Down syndrome, he and his wife were encouraged to institutionalize him. Heath would not hear of it, and the couple worked together to teach their son how to live independently.

Heath was able to travel extensively with his wife, visiting the far-flung places he’d toured in the Navy, such as Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The two enjoyed 65 years of marriage – and many a “cocktail hour” – before Martha Heath died in 2013.

“You could see in his eyes that his mind went somewhere special when he talked about her,” Hoover said.

At Heath’s funeral, members of the N.C. Department of the Environment and Natural Resources reminded folks that some 4 million North Carolinians enjoy clean groundwater in large part thanks to Heath’s work.

“Ralph was a visionary,” Spruill said. “He really could see that problems were developing, but he could also offer solutions like no one I’ve ever seen.”

Ralph Carr Heath

BORN: July 10, 1925, in Lenoir County.

FAMILY: Married Martha Heath in 1947 and they had two children, William Curt Heath and Susan Ann Heath Johnson. He had four grandchildren.

MILITARY: Enlisted in the U.S. Navy via the V-12 Navy College Training Program in 1943 and honorably discharged in 1947.

EDUCATION: Earned a B.S. in geology in 1948 from UNC-Chapel Hill.

CAREER: Worked for the U.S. Geological Survey from 1948 to 1982. He later taught at UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State and Duke, mentoring young hydrologists and advocating for local water causes for decades to follow.

DIED: Jan. 12 in Raleigh.

Jan 262015


By Jane Stancill
January 23, 2015

CHAPEL HILL — Faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill on Friday expressed anger over the forced departure of UNC system President Tom Ross and worry over the future of public higher education in North Carolina.

Tension was high at a packed Faculty Council meeting in Wilson Library as professors openly criticized the UNC Board of Governors’ action last week to push out Ross.

But they weren’t sure how to proceed. Some faculty urged patience as the other 16 campuses in the UNC system weigh the issue. Others suggested that the Chapel Hill campus, near the system’s headquarters, should lead the way in expressing concern.

History professor Lloyd Kramer said he was struck by “a kind of anger or undirected sense of crisis” at the meeting. He suggested UNC-CH ask the UNC system’s faculty body to pass a resolution asking the UNC system board why it forced the departure of Ross, who will step down next January.

“We have to affirm our own concerns, our own priorities and our own vision for the university, and that’s what the flagship should do,” Kramer said, as applause erupted in the heavily attended meeting.

No vote was taken because of procedural rules that provide for notice before major resolutions. But momentum built for the faculty to take a stand.

Andrew Perrin, a sociology professor, posed a question to UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt: “Do you have faith that this Board of Governors shares those values of being a world-class university system for the public of North Carolina?”

She answered, “I do.” Then she added: “The overwhelming perspective I am hearing right now is that they want to be speaking to the legislature about this being a time to invest in your university, that our great universities are the reason this state has thrived.”

‘Oversight umbrella’

Pete Andrews, a professor of environmental policy, said he hoped the Board of Governors wouldn’t move into a new era of micromanagement on campus-level and academic decisions. He said the UNC system itself “is not a degree-granting institution.”

“It is simply an oversight umbrella mechanism created for particular reasons,” he said.

The UNC system board is reviewing research centers and institutes throughout the system in what may be a prelude to budget cuts. Some critics have charged that the action by the Republican-dominated board is a political exercise.

Harry Watson, a history professor, held up a letter that has been circulating among faculty. In reading a few snippets, he said, quoting the letter’s author: “Last night, I was told that faculty should now assume that public higher education in North Carolina is under full assault.”

Stephen Leonard, a UNC-CH political science professor and chairman of the UNC system’s Faculty Assembly, said the letter was one he had sent to colleagues privately.

Leonard said there is a diversity of opinion among faculty and that he was unsure whether faculty bodies on other UNC campuses would weigh in on the matter. He suggested UNC-CH move slowly and allow sister campuses to find their voice, “before we suck all the oxygen out of the room.”

Many have suggested that Ross, who had ties to North Carolina’s Democratic establishment, was shown the door for political reasons. Board Chairman John Fennebresque has strongly denied that. He also praised Ross’ performance and said the board’s action had nothing to do with Ross’ age. The president will turn 65 this year – the age at which past presidents of the modern system have retired.

As president, Ross is in charge of overseeing the sprawling UNC system that includes 16 university campuses and a residential science and math high school. One of the president’s major responsibilities is crafting a budget for the system’s schools and advocating for funding with the legislature.

‘Dragged off stage’

Some at Friday’s meeting, which ran more than two hours, asked about the search for Ross’ successor and whether faculty would have input into the process. Folt said she expected there would be wide representation as the board seeks to hire a new leader.

Eric Muller, a law professor, said he hoped faculty and students at all campuses would engage the UNC system board in a conversation about the qualities needed in Ross’ successor.

“It’s challenging to talk about the process by which a new leader will be selected and the values that that new leader should represent, when the prior leader has been in effect dragged off stage moments before, without an explanation,” Muller said.

Folt said it is important to find common ground during a presidential transition and to advocate for the university. “I’m going to keep a positive attitude going forward,” she said.

Provost Jim Dean agreed that the future should be the focus and that the Chapel Hill campus could have an important role in shaping the search.

“Not getting into the content of the decision at all or speculating on the motives for the decision,” he said, “it’s very clear that the board does have the right to make a decision about the future.”

Hodding Carter III, a recently retired professor, took issue with Folt and Dean’s focus. He said by his research there had been about 50 firings of university presidents in this country in the past 15 years. In all of those, “you knew why they were fired,” he said.

“It does us no good to pretend that the causes for his firing are not relevant to the future,” he said. “If you think they aren’t, I pity the future.”

Council also talks athletics, lawyers

In other action at UNC-CH’s Faculty Council on Friday:

• Two professors challenged UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt on the university’s response to a number of questions by its accrediting agency about the academic/athletic scandal.

Professor Harry Watson said the agency had charged UNC-CH with not being fully honest in the first response by UNC-CH in 2013.

“There was a huge amount of evidence available that what we called the academic problem was thoroughly intertwined with athletics,” Watson said. “The university was, as far as I can tell, still trying very hard to deflect attention away from the athletic program and to deny that we had an athletic problem at Carolina.”

Folt said the university answered specific questions posed by the accrediting agency, detailing 70 reforms that involved both academics and athletics. “We were taking it extremely seriously,” she said. She said the university produced a thorough report.

Provost Jim Dean said the accrediting agency was not concerned with athletics, but with the integrity of the academic processes at the university.

• Folt was also asked why the university had hired the high-priced law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

“The increasing amount of money that we’re paying for legal defense – some of that could be avoided if we were just more forthcoming with information,” said geography professor Altha Cravey, citing the university’s initial lack of disclosure of employees fired after the athletic/academic scandal.

Folt explained that the university’s top lawyer recently left for another job at a time when the university is facing a number of legal challenges, including a lawsuit this week by former UNC-CH athletes.

“The university here is under extraordinary pressure legally,” she said, describing it as “a new level, another level, an unusual level, maybe the greatest level.”

Jan 262015


By Deborah Netburn
Los Angeles Times
January 25, 2015

It’s a sea turtle mystery that has stumped scientists for decades: How does the female sea turtle, which travels across thousands of miles of open ocean each year, still manage to navigate back to the same beach where she hatched to lay her eggs?

Keep in mind that there are no visual guideposts in the open ocean where sea turtles spend most of their lives. It is vast and featureless – an expanse of blue. And yet every two to three years, sea turtles dig their nests at the same location where they once crawled out of their own leathery eggs – a behavior known as natal homing.

Scientists have hypothesized that sea turtles may rely on information in the Earth’s geomagnetic field to help them find their way back to their birth beach, but they had never been able to find any evidence to support this hypothesis. Until now.

In a paper published this month in Current Biology, UNC-Chapel Hill researchers show that subtle changes in the Earth’s magnetic field affect where loggerhead sea turtles bury their eggs on the Florida coast, providing the first clue that what’s known as the geomagnetic imprint hypothesis may be correct.

Since the mid-1990s, scientists have known that sea turtles are capable of deriving navigational information from the Earth’s geomagnetic field – a field we humans cannot sense without the use of scientific instruments.

The magnetic field around the Earth looks similar to the magnetic field around a bar magnet. Its intensity is strongest at the poles and weakest at the equator. It also intersects the Earth at different angles, which are known as inclination angles.

“Turtles have evolved a way to use the inclination angle of the geomagnetic field and its intensity to give them almost an internal GPS,” said J. Roger Brothers, a graduate student at UNC and the first author on the paper.

To see whether female turtles rely on this navigational tool to find their home beaches, the researchers looked at 19 years of data collected by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission on loggerhead nesting sites on the Atlantic Coast of Florida (which also happens to be the largest sea turtle rookery in North America).

Because the Earth’s magnetic field is in constant flux, the researchers hypothesized that in years when the magnetic signatures of adjacent beaches moved closer together, there should be more nests on the same stretch of beach. In years when the magnetic signatures move farther apart, the nests should be more spread out.

And in fact, that’s exactly what they found. At times and places where the magnetic signatures converged, scientists found an average increase of 35 percent in nesting density. At times when the signatures diverged, nesting density decreased by an average of 6 percent.

But there are still many more questions to be answered. For example, researchers do not know what mechanism the turtles are using to detect the geomagnetic field.

“Most likely they have tiny magnetic particles in their brains or in their bodies that act like a compass, but conclusive evidence is lacking,” Brothers said.

Where are their receivers?

Kenneth Lohmann, the senior author of the paper and Brothers’ adviser at UNC, explains that part of the reason these magnetic receptors are so hard to find is because they may be scattered throughout large volumes of tissue.

“Whereas receptors for senses such as olfaction and vision must make contact with the external environment, magnetoreceptors might be located almost anywhere inside an animal’s body,” he wrote in a News and Views article in Nature in 2010.

Brothers also noted that while loggerhead turtles may use geomagnetic fields to help them get back home to lay their eggs, it does not appear they are not relying on the information alone.

“We don’t expect that these turtles are coming to the magnetic signature regardless of what else is going on,” he said. “If a condo is built there, they will usually decide to go nest somewhere else.”

Going forward, Brothers would like to see similar studies done on other animals that exhibit natal homing – for example, salmon, sharks, migratory birds and elephant seals.

“Our hope is that this analysis will open the door to figuring out how all the other animals are doing it,” he said.

Meet the biologist

J. Roger Brothers, 25

Background: Brothers is from Durham, and has a bachelor’s in biology from Bowdoin College, in Maine; he is a Ph.D. student in biology at UNC-Chapel Hill.

What does the J stand for? “John. But I’ve gone by ‘Roger’ my whole life, which makes things confusing.”

Interest in turtles: “My first experience was on vacation with my family as a child. We got to see a nest emerge on the North Carolina coast – at Holden Beach, I believe. My whole life I’ve been interested in biology, particularly marine biology. In college, I got interested in how turtles find their way on long-distance travels: There are no landmarks in a featureless ocean. That has been very interesting to me.”

Spare time: “Work takes me to the beach a lot, luckily. I’m also a whitewater kayaker, and I also do woodworking.”

Jan 262015


JAN. 25, 2015

PARK CITY, Utah — “The Hunting Ground,” set for release in theaters and broadcast on CNN, was billed by the Sundance Film Festival as a “piercing, monumental exposé of rape culture on campuses.” Judging by viewer reaction at the film’s premiere and the comments of two United States senators afterward, festival programmers might have undersold it.

Though the subject has been explored in depth by some publications, the response testified to the power of film. At the premiere here on Friday, audience members repeatedly gasped as student after student spoke on camera about being sexually assaulted — and being subsequently ignored or run through endless hoops by college administrators concerned about keeping rape statistics low.

“The power on that status quo side, you’re going to see it in response to this film,” said Senator Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, at a related panel discussion on Saturday. She added, “Believe me, there will be fallout.”

Along with institutions like Harvard, Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, “The Hunting Ground” takes on the fraternity system — in particular, Sigma Alpha Epsilon — and even throws down a challenge of a sort for the National Football League with a not-so-subtle suggestion that teams should think twice about drafting one of the top college prospects, Jameis Winston.

Mr. Winston, the Florida State University quarterback, is the focus of one of the film’s more incendiary segments. The Heisman Trophy winner in 2013, he was accused in 2012 of sexual assault by a female student. He has asserted his innocence, did not face criminal charges and was recently cleared of violating Florida State’s student code of conduct by the university. He is widely expected to be among the first several players chosen in this spring’s N.F.L. draft. But “The Hunting Ground,” directed by Kirby Dick, makes a mockery of Florida State’s investigation, and Mr. Winston’s accuser, Erica Kinsman, speaks publicly about the case for the first time in the film, at length.

Ms. Boxer was joined on the panel here on Saturday by Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, Democrat of New York. Both are backing legislation intended to curb the startling number of sexual assaults on college campuses. The measure would require schools to make public the result of anonymous surveys concerning assaults, and would impose significant financial burdens on universities that fail to comply with some of the law’s requirements.

In the near term, severe public shaming will arrive via Mr. Dick’s film, which mentions dozens of schools by name and focuses on six. “The Hunting Ground” will be released in theaters on March 20 by Radius-TWC, a division of the Weinstein Company, which is known for stirring controversy to support film releases. “The Hunting Ground” poster resembles an ad for a horror movie.

CNN could provide a global megaphone. That is what the network did with its airing of “Blackfish,” the 2013 documentary that debuted at Sundance and was harshly critical of SeaWorld and its captive orca program. The wide audience prompted consumer outrage that has been tied to decreases in SeaWorld attendance.

“We’re not afraid,” Jeff Zucker, president of CNN Worldwide, said after the panel, when asked about a potentially forceful response from higher education officials to “The Hunting Ground.” “They’re on the wrong side.” CNN has not revealed an air date except to say that it will run the film by the end of the year.

A spokeswoman for the United States Department of Education did not respond to a query on Sunday.

Mr. Dick and his producing partner, Amy Ziering, are known for their documentary “The Invisible War,” which put a spotlight on rape in the United States military and was nominated for best documentary at the 2013 Academy Awards.

The Department of Education, according to Mr. Dick’s film, is investigating 90 colleges for their handling of sexual assault complaints. Ms. Boxer, citing urgency created by “The Hunting Ground,” vowed to meet with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan “immediately, next week” during her panel remarks. She said she planned to say, “You guys, get out ahead of this, because this is going to come back to your door after everyone sees this film.”

Underscoring the degree to which media scrutiny of campus rape can provoke swift and severe pushback, Rolling Stone in November was forced to step away from a provocative article focused on accusations of a gang rape at the University of Virginia. The magazine acknowledged that it had erred in relying solely on the word of the accuser, named only as Jackie, and did not try to contact the men she accused.

No senior university officials appear on camera in “The Hunting Ground,” but Mr. Dick said on Saturday that they had been given the opportunity.

“All of them passed or did not respond at all,” Mr. Dick said of the presidents of the six schools at the center of the documentary, including Harvard. He said his team contacted another 35 schools. “No response or they passed on the interview,” he said.

Jan 262015



NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Defense attorneys for the former Vanderbilt University football players whose own cellphones show they participated in a dorm-room sex assault have placed blame on the elite Southern university, saying their clients’ judgment was warped by a campus culture where drunken sex was common.

The graphic evidence and testimony presented in court is all the more shocking because it shows that several others were at least partly aware that an unconscious woman was being taken advantage of or had enough evidence to show that something had happened to her, and did nothing to help her or report it.

That bystanders’ failure to act falls well short of the university culture Vanderbilt officials say they were trying to create on campus long before the morning of June 23, 2013.

It also hints at the enormity of the challenge facing colleges nationwide as they try to establish campuses where students are safe, everyone understands the rules, and entire communities work together to make sure such crimes don’t happen.

“I think we need to think about the range of bystanders who could have intervened before they got into that dorm room,” said Jane Stapleton, a professor at the University of New Hampshire and an expert on intervention programs. And by not calling for help when the woman was seen lying unconscious and naked in a hallway afterward, the other athletes made such behavior seem normal, she said.

The U.S. Department of Education issued its most specific guidance yet for how schools should handle sex assault complaints in 2011, and colleges including Vanderbilt updated their policies. Meanwhile, college women increasingly took matters into their own hands, networking with each other and supporting a national campaign to file Title IX complaints claiming their schools were mishandling cases. After these gang rape charges were filed in 2013, Vanderbilt became one of dozens of universities subject to more intense investigation.

Sarah O’Brien, who spearheaded the Title IX complaint against Vanderbilt, said she’s not at all surprised at the testimony showing how many people failed to help. Many at Vanderbilt and elsewhere tend to look the other way, she said.

The first to be tried are former wide receiver Cory Batey and star recruit Brandon Vandenburg, whose dorm room became the scene of the alleged crimes. Also charged with aggravated rape and aggravated sexual battery are Brandon Banks, who played defensive back, and Jaborian McKenzie, a former receiver for the Commodores. All have pleaded not guilty.

Banks and McKenzie will be tried later, and were not provided with plea agreements in exchange for their cooperation, prosecutors said.

Defense attorney Worrick Robinson sought on Friday to prove a point he made as the trial opened: that Batey had been a promising young player before he “walked into a culture that changed the rest of his life.”

“Is there anything in their culture that might influence the way they act or the way they think or the way they make decisions?” Robinson asked his expert James Walker, a neuropsychologist who said Batey claimed to have had between 14 and 22 drinks that night.

“Yes, at that age peer pressure is critical,” Walker responded, “because you’re just going out on your own, you’re not fully an adult, you’re not fully a child. … You tend to take on the behavior of people around you.”

Prosecutors objected, and Walker ultimately acknowledged that he had done no scholarly work on Vanderbilt’s campus culture.

But even prosecutors presented testimony and evidence showing that many people failed to intervene. Batey’s defense, in particular, has suggested that drunken sex was commonplace because nobody apparently called for help when Vandenburg was seen carrying the unconscious student into the dorm.

Cameras showed a crowd gathered around as Vandenburg pulled up to the dorm in a vehicle with his unconscious date. At least five students later became aware of the unconscious woman in obvious distress, but did nothing to report it. Rumors quickly spread around campus, and still no one apparently reported it.

The assault might have gone unnoticed and uncorroborated had the university not stumbled onto the closed-circuit TV images several days later in an unrelated attempt to learn who damaged a dormitory door. They were shocked to see players carrying an unconscious woman into an elevator and down a hallway, taking compromising pictures of her and then dragging her into the room.

Prompted by the video, school authorities contacted police, who found a digital trail showing one of the players sent videos about what they were doing as it was happening.

The woman – a neuroscience student who had been dating Vandenburg before the alleged rape and returned to Nashville to testify – cried softly and the jurors stared wide-eyed as a detective narrated the videos Vandenburg shared and described the pictures taken on their cellphones.

She testified that she woke up in Vandenburg’s dorm room bed the next morning with her clothes on, and still has no memory of anything that happened after Vandenburg passed her drinks the night before, some of which were purchased for the players by a team booster.

Dillon van der Wal, who just completed football season playing tight end at Vanderbilt, testified that he didn’t tell anyone despite knowing the woman socially and seeing her unconscious in the hallway, with red hand marks on her buttocks.

“You thought well of her, you cared for her welfare,” defense attorney Fletcher Long said. “When you encountered her in the condition you found her with the marks you testified to, you called the police?”

“I did not,” van der Wal, replied.

Vanderbilt officials say school rules go beyond federal requirements on sexual violence responses. The student handbook clearly lists resources available to victims and encourages anyone who witnesses possible sexual misconduct to take action and report it to law enforcement. However, university spokeswoman Princine Lewis said Friday that rulebook is “meant to encourage reporting. It does not require it.”

Closing arguments are expected on Monday.

Jan 262015


January 25 at 6:05 PM

Alex Mazze answered the door at his family’s house in Rockville on Sunday morning, then jumped back: A huge red bus was rumbling on the street out front of his house, a small crowd of people wearing red had gathered around his door, neighbors were staring, and video cameras were rolling.

“Alex?” a woman asked the bilingual senior at Thomas Sprigg Wootton High School, who had just woken up. “I’m Shannon Gundy, the director of admissions at the University of Maryland. Congratulations, you’ve been admitted to Maryland!”

“Whoa,” he said. “Oh my goodn– … Really?”

Testudo, the school’s furry terrapin mascot, went in for a hug. People cheered. His parents looked as if they might cry.

Over the coming weeks and months, college admissions announcements will be made to hundreds of thousands of students. Some will get an e-mail. Some will get a letter. Some, like most of U-Md.’s applicants later this week, will log on to a Web site to find out their fate.

For the students and families waiting anxiously at the end of a process so long, so fraught, so emotional, an electronic message is an impersonal, sudden end. It is for admissions staff, as well — especially at big schools like U-Md. where they have been working nights and weekends, reading through 28,000 applications from students, most of whom they never meet.

This year, for the first time, U-Md. officials decided to make it personal. 

For six students, chosen mostly at random, officials literally walked right up to the door and gave them a hug.

“We don’t have a clue what to expect,” Gundy said as the bus rolled out of campus Sunday morning, full of admissions staff members wearing Maryland-flag scarves, turtle brooches and red scarves, jackets, a cape and a bow tie. “We hope the students will be as excited as we are.”

Years ago, the staff would end the admissions process with a Saturday spent stuffing acceptance letters into envelopes, then line the halls and applaud when the mail trucks came to take the boxes away. More recently, hoping to get a sense of some of the excitement and relief of those decisions, they gathered in a conference room following social media — enjoying the elated tweets announcing acceptances, watching YouTube videos parents shot of their kids reacting to the decision.

They try throughout the process to reassure families, make them less anxious, Gundy said. But it’s not easy on either end.

This year, they decided to get in on the fun part. All in.

The bus had slowed Sunday, in a Silver Spring neighborhood of small brick houses and metal fences. Jordan Ford, assistant director of marketing communications enrollment management, called out from the back of the bus, “Okay, we’re about two turns away, so get ready!”

Everyone stopped chattering. Testudo’s head went back on. The bus inched between battered pickups and cars parked along each side of the road. “My heart is racing,” Gundy said.

“There’s Bemnet’s dad!” someone called out, as though he were an old friend. Ford had called one parent at each home, asked them if a surprise would be okay and urged them to keep it a secret.

Gundy knocked on the door, and Bemnet Zewdie, a student who was born in rural Ethi­o­pia and came to the United States when he was 7, answered. He was so stunned that when Gundy congratulated him, he choked out, “Great!” and took a big gulp of air.

His mother, Haregwa Belete, stood to the side, clasping her hands in front of her mouth as though praying, or trying not to laugh aloud, or sob. “My son,” she said. “I’m so proud!”

They had been so anxious, she said, waiting for the decisions. Bemnet kept logging onto the admission’s Web site, but there was no update.

The family used to share a basement home with another family, able to afford only one meal a day. Bemnet hopes, one day, to help bring electricity to rural areas overseas.

Neighbors cracked open screen doors, watching. Just before the bus rolled away, Belete ran back out, still in a cotton flowered nightgown with a fleece jacket over it and flip-flops over slipper socks, carrying a basket full of small, silver-wrapped packages. In her culture, she told the admissions staffers as they each took one of the fruit granola bars, it was traditional to give gifts.

“Look at them hugging,” someone said as the bus started up again, headed north, to find the next student. “Awwwwwwwwwwww.”

In Potomac, the bus squeezed through the winding streets of a neighborhood of large homes, where the SUVs were tucked away in three-car garages and the lawns were freshly landscaped. Someone called out the house number. “There it is! Go, team, go!”

Laura Werber opened the door, widened her eyes, and never stopped beaming. She laughed, and hugged her brother Doug, who graduated from U-Md. last spring, jumping up and down.

“This is her dream school,” Doug Werber said.

Laura had been dreading school Friday — that’s the day she thought she would find out. She wasn’t sure she could take it. “All my friends know I want to get in. I didn’t want to deal with all the, ‘Are you nervous?’ ‘Have you heard?’” she said.

She laughed. “This is the best thing ever!”

Neighbors had come over and were posing with Testudo and congratulating Laura’s parents. One of them told an admissions staffer that they had known Laura, who was co-editor of her yearbook and won a scholar-athlete award, since she was a toddler. Every time someone gets into college, there’s a community that celebrates. The bus honked as it pulled away, and they cheered and waved.

“I feel like I’m going to cry real hard,” Gundy said. Someone passed around a box of tissues.

The next house was only 15 minutes away, in Rockville. On the bus, people talked about how they had saved all their admissions letters. A man walking his dog stopped to watch as the bus parked in front of a brick house.

“This is for real?” Alex asked, incredulous. After Gundy convinced him, a huge grin lit up his face. He darted onto the grass in his socks, held up his phone and asked if he could take a selfie with her.

“Alex, I’m so proud of you,” said his dad, Seth Mazze. “You have worked so hard all these years.”

A mom led her small children, still in their footie pajamas, by the hand to see the bus and the terrapin. They waved and cheered.

“You can ask any senior,” Alex said as the staff gathered for a photo by the bus. “The college process is a stressful one.” You have to try to present yourself — who you are, what you have done, what you hope to do — on a piece of paper, he said. “That’s difficult do to.”

He has wanted to go to U-Md. for a long time, he said, to study science. “I’m still in shock.

“This is so amazing,” he said, then blurted out the applause line everyone on the bus had been hoping for: “I’m going to Maryland!”

Jan 262015


By Katherine Long
Seattle Times higher education reporter

Every week, they slide books through the metal detectors — novels by Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen, copies of the U.S. Constitution, texts on sociology, psychology and comparative religion.

Then dozens of professors and instructors from Washington’s public and private colleges surrender their driver’s licenses and car keys to an armed guard, walk through the detector themselves and pass through a perimeter fence topped by coils of gleaming razor wire.

They have come to teach some of the state’s most unlikely college students: men and women serving time for felonies such as rape, robbery and murder.

Many think inmates don’t deserve the kind of higher education that law-abiding citizens must pay tens of thousands of dollars to get, a view that led lawmakers, as part of a get-tough-on-crime push in the 1990s, to bar federal and state money from supporting college classes in prison.

But now, such classes are starting to creep back, operating on shoestring budgets with private money, in the belief that they will more than pay for themselves by giving felons skills that can help them get jobs, reducing the recidivism rate.

Supporters point to a 2013 study by the nonprofit RAND Corp., which concluded that prisoners who participated in education programs were 43 percent less likely to return to prison within three years of release, and also found that every dollar spent on inmate education translated to $4 to $5 saved on re-incarceration.

The study couldn’t unravel whether college classes made the difference, because it looked at all levels of schooling, including GEDs and vocational education. But studies being done now are tackling that question.

In the meantime, participating academics believe they’re making a difference — for the inmates and society as a whole.

Teaching in prison “is the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done,” said Reid Helford, a sociologist with a Ph.D. from Loyola University in Chicago, who teaches sociology to inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

Education does more than offer inmates a credential, he added, saying it teaches them how to be the people we want our fellow citizens to be — thoughtful, critically aware of the world around them, disciplined and able to recognize authority.

Visiting professors

One morning this fall, Robin Jacobson, an assistant professor of politics and government at the University of Puget Sound (UPS), stood before 16 inmates at the Washington Corrections Center for Women near Gig Harbor, lecturing about how a bill works its way through Congress.

The women, dressed in gray sweats with prison IDs clipped to their shirts, followed her closely — taking notes, frequently raising their hands to offer observations or ask questions.

Does the president need Senate consent to fire a cabinet member?

What is the importance of presidential signing statements?

How could Jimmy Carter have won the 1976 election if popularity is an important component of political power?

“Great questions,” Jacobson said, beaming.

Her course is offered through the privately funded Freedom Education Project of Puget Sound (FEPPS). Twelve professors from UPS, the University of Washington, Seattle Pacific University, Tacoma Community College and Harvard Extension School receive a stipend of $1,200 per semester to pay for transportation to and from the prison. UPS students serve as study-hall tutors.

The women inmates themselves asked for the classes. They’d heard from former prisoners that vocational certificates didn’t always translate into jobs, and they wanted something more meaningful.

“The fundamental question is, what do we expect from our justice system?” asked Alyssa Knight, a student and inmate in her early 30s who expects to be released in 2025, 22 years after her conviction in the murder and attempted robbery of a suspected drug dealer.

“Do you expect it to rehabilitate a person?” asked Knight. “If you are just basically warehousing people, then you are not going to get a change.”

Tanya Erzen, executive director of FEPPS and an associate professor of religion at UPS, echoed a theme voiced by others who teach behind bars: Many inmates seem to value an education more fervently than the typical college student, for whom going to college was always a given.

According to a FEPPS survey, 78 percent of the women in the program have been victims of domestic violence. More than 40 percent are high-school dropouts.

In the past two years, 250 women have taken courses through FEPPS. Currently, 37 women are working toward a college degree.

The program is so popular that it has a waiting list of about 50.

Public money off-limits

Before 1994, there were about 350 college prison programs nationwide, run by public colleges and universities. But then Congress eliminated federal student Pell Grant aid to prisoners, the source of money that had paid for college classes behind bars.

In 1995, Washington lawmakers followed suit with a ban on using tax money for postsecondary education in prison.

The same law expressly requires inmates to earn the equivalent of a high-school diploma. Inmates are also encouraged to learn vocational skills through classes taught by the state’s community colleges. That carries an annual price tag of about $15.5 million, or about $939 for each of the state’s 16,500 inmates.

But academic college courses are off-limits, except for the privately funded programs that are offered in just four of the state’s prisons, and for the correspondence courses for inmates who can afford them.

Last year, 980 inmates completed a high-school- equivalency degree, and inmates also earned a total of 1,812 vocational certificates. But just 47 finished a two-year college degree.

College-level courses started creeping back into Washington prisons in 2005, when a private group, University Behind Bars, began offering them at the Monroe Correctional Complex. Then in 2008, an inmate at the Walla Walla prison wrote to business magnate Warren Buffett and implored him to fund classes in the state’s oldest prison.

The letter found its way to Warren Buffett’s sister Doris, who supported prison education in New York through her charity, the Sunshine Lady Foundation. Doris Buffett agreed to pay for a small program at Walla Walla and later extended it to Coyote Ridge Corrections Center near the Tri-Cities.

University Behind Bars has also expanded and now reaches nearly 200 inmates in two units of the Monroe Correctional Complex.

Finding some control

Paradoxically, for some, prison is a good place to go to college.

Behind bars, distractions are minimized and the structure of prison life makes it more likely that inmates will finish their educations, said Henry Richards, a Seattle forensic psychologist in private practice. Richards is the liaison between the Buffett foundation and the Walla Walla prison.

For many who ran afoul of the law, he said, going to school was like prison itself — “regimentation, boredom, the main emphasis is on control and being told you’ve failed.”

But while behind bars, he said, education becomes a way for inmates to control their futures.

Helford, the Walla Walla Community College adjunct who teaches both GED and college-level classes at the state penitentiary, said many inmates in his courses undergo a transformation.

When they first start his classes, “there’s something raw about them as students,” he said. “They really don’t know how to be a good student — how to behave in the classroom, how to present an argument, how to talk intelligently.”

They come in angry, he said, knowing everything. But after a few semesters, they change from “a somewhat immature kid” to “someone who has some poise, can speak intelligently, knows how to learn about something.”

Helford and Richards both acknowledge that the inmates who want college-level work may be the most academically capable men and women in the state prison system.

As such, they may be least likely to ever reoffend, no matter what kind of education they get in prison.

Still, two decades after funding for prison education was stripped away, “there is a deep understanding that college in prison was a good thing, and that it’s sorely missed,” said Vivian Nixon, executive director of the College & Community Fellowship, a New York-based nonprofit involved in prison education advocacy.

In the past, she said, inmates enrolled in college courses often mentored prisoners working on their high-school diplomas. “There was a better culture of learning — not just in education but in treatment programs for substance abuse, parenting programs, work training programs,” she said.

Over the years, some Washington legislators have tried to amend the law so some state money could be used for college-level classes. But strong opposition still exists. A 2013 bill, for example, would have allowed the Department of Corrections to carve money out of its budget to pay for prison education, but the bill died in committee.

In New York last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to provide basic financing for college-education programs in that state’s prisons also went nowhere. One lawmaker called it a “slap in the face” to hardworking New Yorkers struggling to send their kids to college.


Inmates who take college classes say that wrestling with big ideas stretches their intellectual muscles and relieves the monotony of prison life.

To do homework in their cells, they must turn off the TV and put away the playing cards.

When classes took off at the women’s prison, inmates put aside their complaints about prison life and began discussing English literature, or comparative religion, or American history.

“It pervaded our existence in here — it started to transform what people were thinking about,” said Knight, the inmate who is serving time for the murder of a drug dealer in Spokane.

Richards said a similar thing happened at the Walla Walla prison, as racial conflict and antagonism — hallmarks of prison life — were pushed to the background while inmates focused on their coursework.

The professors say they don’t dumb down the coursework for their prison classes. For most inmates, that’s meant having to step up their writing skills and take remedial math.

Marriam Oliver, an inmate at the women’s prison, has been locked up since she was 14 years old, after she and four other teens and an adult were convicted of killing an Everett man in 2001. One of her triumphs in prison was reading Virginia Woolf and then discussing the English novelist’s work with a college-going family member who came to visit.

“You see a lot of people coming back to prison, and a lot of that has to do with their education,” said Oliver, who is scheduled to be released in 2023. “And I refuse to be one of those people that didn’t take advantage of opportunities.”

A five-year study now under way will help determine if she is right.

The Pathways from Prison to Postsecondary Education Project, led by the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, is studying whether a college education in prison is a good investment.

Researchers hope to build on the earlier RAND study, which was unable to disentangle the effects of all the different types of education programs — basic remedial education, vocational training and college-level courses.

“This demonstration project is an important opportunity to get inside the ‘black box’ to really understand what program elements and dosage is associated with different outcomes,” said Lois Davis, one of the RAND report’s authors.

But advocates — and some inmates — are already convinced.

Tonya Wilson is working on her degree while serving two consecutive 10-year terms for two counts of second-degree murder in Washington. She believes that inmates who complete a college education may be better equipped to break the cycle of crime in their families that leads them to prison in the first place.

“Who would you rather live beside,” she asked, “a person that’s just getting out of prison who just sat in her cell and stewed, or do you want somebody who has transformed, who is educated, who will not be a drain on society?”

Jan 262015


By Jeffrey J. Selingo January 26 at 6:00 AM

If you watch college sports on television, you’ve probably seen the ad for Enterprise Rent-A-Car featuring former college athletes working behind the counter at your nearby Enterprise location. Enterprise – which hires more entry-level college graduates annually than any other company in the U.S. — likes recruiting college athletes because they know how to work on teams and multitask.

“We see a lot of transferable skills in athletes,” Marie Artim, vice president of talent acquisition at Enterprise, told me.

Even so, Enterprise, like many employers, still finds today’s college graduates severely lacking in some basic skills, particularly problem solving, decision making, and the ability to prioritize tasks.

“This is a generation that has been ‘syllabused’ through their lives,” Artim said, referring to the outline of a class students receive at the beginning of a college course. “Decisions were made for them, so we’re less likely to find someone who can pull the trigger and make a decision.”

Bosses, of course, have long complained that newly minted college grads are not ready for the world of work, but there is a growing body of evidence that what students learn — or more likely don’t learn — in college makes them ill-prepared for the global job market. Two studies in just the past few weeks show that the clear signal a college degree once sent to employers that someone is ready for a job increasingly has a lot of noise surrounding it.

One study is the result of a test administered to 32,000 students at 169 colleges and universities. It found that 40 percent of college seniors fail to graduate with the complex reasoning skills needed in today’s workplace. The test, the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus, is given to freshmen and seniors and measures the gains made during college in critical thinking, writing and communication, and analytical reasoning.

The results of the test found little difference between those students who graduated from public colleges and those who went to private schools. Not surprisingly, students who graduated from the best colleges did better than everyone else on the test as seniors, but their gains since taking the test as freshmen were actually smaller than those students who graduated from less elite schools.

The big difference between the skills of graduates depended on their college major: Students who studied math and science scored significantly higher than those who studied in the so-called helping and service fields, such as social work, and in business, which is the most popular college major.

A second study released this month found a similar disconnect between what employers need and the readiness of college seniors. In a pair of surveys by the Association of American Colleges & Universities, would-be graduates said college armed them with the skills needed for the job market. But employers disagreed. On a range of nearly 20 skills, employers consistently rated students much lower than they judged themselves. While 57 percent of students said they were creative and innovative, for example, just 25 percent of employers agreed.

Employers gave low ratings to recent college graduates across many readiness categories, according to this chart, from a Hart Research Associates study on behalf of the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

If you’re a parent of a high-school senior or prospective college student, these findings might make you wonder if there is any hope for a good job after college graduation. There is, but whether a student launches after college depends largely on what they do while in school. Just getting the sheepskin no longer guarantees a good job.

Employers tell me that students who dedicate time and effort to their major or an outside-the-classroom activity, secure multiple internships during their four years, and take on leadership roles are more likely to possess the skills needed for the workforce than students who drift through college. The best skill that students can learn in college is actually the ability to learn.

“People know how to take a course. But they need to learn how to learn,” said John Leutner, head of global learning at Xerox. The reason he said so many workers take time management courses is that while they were in college someone else set their priorities for them. “College graduates now,” he told me, “move into a contextual job, not a task-based job.”

The best preparation for today’s job market is a mix of classroom learning that can be applied in real-world experiences, or a combination of academic experience and practical experience. “Our best employees are problem solvers and are able to weave everything they know together,” said Artim, of Enterprise. “They can think on their feet.”

What these recent studies show is that too many students are focused on the wrong things in college. Too many of them are worried, for example, about picking the right college major for the job market, when it really doesn’t matter what they major in as long as they are rigorous in their studies as well as activities beyond the classroom.

There is also too much emphasis these days on picking a practical field of study, which is why business is the most popular undergraduate major. But employers need people who are broadly educated and have practical skills. Too many colleges are failing to provide that guidance and those opportunities to students while saddling them with debt they won’t be able pay off in the unemployment line.

One of the country’s most-sought-after employers, Google, has found that it is increasingly hiring people without college degrees because the signal of the credential is no longer as clear as it used to be that someone is job ready. If colleges don’t provide the mix of academic and practical experiences that students need and students fail to take advantage of them, pretty soon we’ll see other employers looking for alternatives to the college degree as well.

Selingo is a regular contributor to Grade Point. He is a former editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, an author of books about higher education and a professor of practice at Arizona State University.