News in Brief

By AGB    //    Volume 29,  Number 2   //    March/April 2021

Are College Campuses COVID-19 Superspreaders?

The first two weeks of a new semester present the highest risk of college and university campuses becoming COVID-19 superspreaders within their community, according to a new peer-reviewed analysis published online January 13, 2021, in Computer Methods in Biomechanics and Biomedical Engineering.

This Stanford University data-driven modeling study was conducted by Hannah Lu, Cortney Weintz, Joseph Pace, Dhiraj Indana, Kevin Linka, and Ellen Kuhl. Throughout fall 2020, the team studied 30 public and private institutions with publicly available college dashboards that reported COVID-19 case numbers on a daily basis and whose cumulative case numbers on campus exceeded 100.

The report found 14 institutions’ infection rates spiked “within the first two weeks of class, with peak seven-day incidences well above 1,000 per 100,000, an order of magnitude larger than the nationwide peaks of 70 and 150 during the first and second waves of the pandemic.” These findings suggest college campuses are at risk of becoming COVID-19 superspreaders if campus leaders do not enforce strict test-trace-quarantine procedures and comply with local public health regulations.

Following these campus peaks, the researchers discovered COVID-19 outbreaks on 17 campuses caused peaks of infection within their surrounding counties. Tight outbreak management on campus benefits campus stakeholders and supports higher risk community members in the college town. Ellen Kuhl, the senior author of the study, told Inside Higher Ed, “while the campus numbers reduced really quickly with the tight management of the disease, the counties had a much harder time to troubleshoot this and bring these high numbers down. Some of them never really did.”

AFT and AAUP Launch “A NEW Deal for Higher Education” Campaign

On February 10, 2021, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) launched an ambitious campaign—A New Deal for Higher Education—that calls for reauthorization of the Higher Education Act and the creation of federal policies that establish dedicated public funding streams and hold administrations accountable for how these monies are spent.

According to the New Deal for Higher Education website (, the premise for the campaign is that “expertise and critical thinking are under attack, and our society suffers as a result. We need to reaffirm the role that higher education plays in our society. We must stand up for a just, inclusive system of education—one that can help transform our society. We need a new deal for higher education.”

The policy plan established for the New Deal advocates:

  • Prioritizing teaching, research, and supporting student success;
  • Allowing all students to access higher education regardless of their ability to pay;
  • Ensuring job security, equitable pay, professional voice, and sustainable careers for all faculty and staff;
  • Creating academic environments free of racism, sexism, and other bigotries that prevent learning, degrade research, and perpetuate inequality; and
  • Canceling student debt for borrowers who have unjustly shouldered the burden of financing higher education for the last 40 years.

The New Deal agenda focuses on four values:

  • Building prosperity from the bottom up;
  • Advancing social, racial, and economic justice;
  • Strengthening democracy and civil society; and
  • Fostering knowledge and innovation.

The New Deal website provides a variety of resources for institutions to use to “start a conversation about a New Deal for Higher Education.”

Mellon Foundation Gives up to $5 Million to 15 Universities for Projects on Racial Justice

On January 13, 2021, the Mellon Foundation announced the Just Futures higher education grant winners for projects dedicated to racial justice and social equality. Each university received grants of up to $5 million to implement their proposals over a three-year period. The communities featured in these projects range from Latinx communities in Southern California to tribal nations in Minnesota and Baltimore’s Black community.

According to the Mellon Foundation’s website, the Just Futures initiative supports scholars studying periods of crisis and disruption in order to foster cultural and social transformation. Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander hopes this initiative marks “new milestones in the effort to better capture the contributions of the many different communities that make up the American story.”

The Mellon Foundation announced the following universities as winners: Brown University; Columbia University; Cornell University; Florida International University; Howard University; Johns Hopkins University; Michigan State University; the University of Texas at San Antonio; the University of California at Berkeley; the University of California at Riverside; the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; the University of Minnesota at Twin Cities; the University of Oregon; the University of Pennsylvania; and the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Department of Education Memo States Title IX Does Not Apply to LGBTQ Discrimination

The Department of Education’s Office of the General Counsel published a memorandum on January 8, 2021, stating LGBTQ students are not expressly protected under Title IX.

The majority opinion in Bostock v. Clayton County declared “it is impossible to discriminate against a person for being homosexual or transgender without discriminating against that individual based on sex.” Yet, the memorandum denies this landmark case’s ruling is applicable to federal education law. According to the memo, Title IX protections against sex discrimination only apply to “biological sex, male or female,” thereby intentionally excluding members of the LGBTQ community when they face discrimination based on their gender identity or sexual orientation.

Civil Rights and LGBTQ advocacy organizations immediately rebuked the Department of Education for this memorandum. In a January 8 statement, Human Rights Campaign President Alphonso David said the memorandum was “unconscionable and legally flawed” and pressed the Biden administration to “urgently rescind this discriminatory guidance.”

Even though the memorandum does not carry the power of a formal regulation, it appears likely that Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona will withdraw the memorandum altogether in favor of expanding the scope of Title IX to apply to LGBTQ discrimination.

Senate Confirms Miguel Cardona as Secretary of Education

The U.S. Senate confirmed Miguel Cardona as President Joe Biden’s Secretary of Education on March 1, 2021. President Joe Biden announced Miguel Cardona as his nominee for Secretary of Education in late December 2020. “Dr. Cardona has a proven track record as an innovative leader who will fight for all students, and for a better, fairer, more successful education system,” said Biden during his December 23, 2020, announcement.

Cardona is a lifelong champion of public schools, previously working as a fourth-grade teacher, a principal at Hanover Elementary School in Meriden, Connecticut, and until recently as Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education. While Cardona’s career experience is primarily in elementary and primary education, he champions higher education as well.

Student loan forgiveness and accessibility will be at the top of Cardona’s higher education agenda. “College is the pathway to continued success and we have to make sure that our students still have access to it and that they’re supposed in this process,” said Cardona in a January 26, 2021, interview with Connecticut Public Radio.

NCAA Delays Vote on Name, Image, and Likeness

A Letter from the Justice Department to the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) on January 8 prompted the association’s governing bodies to postpone their vote on policies regarding student athletes’ name, image, and likeness (NIL).

USA Today obtained a copy of the letter and reported Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division Makan Delrahim warned NCAA President Mark Emmert that NCAA’s prospective policies may raise antitrust concerns from the Department of Justice (DOJ). “Ultimately, the antitrust laws demand that college athletes, like everyone else in our free market economy, benefit appropriately from competition,” wrote Delrahim in the letter.

Emmert expressed frustration with the DOJ’s stance in the past. Yet, in a response letter to Delrahim obtained by the New York Times, Emmert stated, “We believe, as courts have regularly held, that our current amateurism and other rules are indeed fully compliant” with federal antitrust law.

The NCAA faces increasing pressure to modify its policies to allow student athletes to profit off the use of their name, image, or likeness. Six states, including California and Florida, have already passed various NIL-related laws and will continue to challenge the NCAA’s current policies. The NCAA has not officially announced a date for the rescheduled vote.

Biden’s Executive Orders Are Promising for International Students

Immigration reform is central to President Joe Biden’s executive actions during his first 100 days in office. On January 20, 2021, President Biden revoked several of former President Donald Trump’s executive orders and related proclamations, including Executive Order 13780 (Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States).

By ending the travel ban to Muslim-majority and African countries and reaffirming their support for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, the Biden-Harris administration is not only making it easier for more international students to study in the United States, but is also encouraging international graduate students in STEM fields to stay stateside after graduation.

These executive orders align with Biden’s campaign promises to protect dreamers and their families, exempt recent graduates of PhD programs in STEM fields from visa caps, and give green cards to foreign graduates of U.S. doctoral programs, according to “The Biden Plan for Securing Our Values as a Nation of Immigrants” on his campaign website.

“These first executive orders are a vital component of restoring the confidence of international students and scholars as they choose where to study and contribute to U.S. campuses, our economy, and our communities,” said Esther D. Brimmer, the executive director and CEO of NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

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