New College student Ella Luasty, 19, was among those protesting the appointment of a new board of trustees at New College on Jan. 31 in Sarasota. The school has since launched an effort to hire new faculty and recruit more "mission-aligned” students. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Our Tampa Bay Times reporter landed a big story in Florida — professors were told to withdraw their tenure applications. And, two of our reporters are Education Writers Association award nominees.

The Dispatch
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A newsletter about role of higher education in society — plus Open Campus developments.

Breaking news on tenure in Florida

Ian Hodgson, one of our two higher ed reporters at the Tampa Bay Times, landed a major story recently: New College of Florida Interim President Richard Corcoran asked seven faculty members to withdraw their applications for tenure ahead of the next board of trustee’s meeting.

“Changes to Florida’s public universities are going to happen quickly and quietly. If it wasn’t for a tip that this meeting occurred, we never would have known,” Ian told me.

Turning the tip into a story wasn’t easy. The Tampa Bay Times has a policy against anonymous sources — and nobody wanted to talk. There was no public record confirming the meeting happened, aside from a calendar invite. Ian turned to other well-informed faculty on campus and documentation about the meeting. He ultimately got the school’s faculty union president to confirm what was happening on the record.

This kind of careful reporting really matters as faculty members and administrators in Florida are more hesitant than ever to talk to journalists. “When you talk to professors, what’s occupying so much of their minds are concerns about what legislators in Tallahassee are going to do next,” Ian says.

The skittishness comes amid major political headwinds: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has pushed forward major changes at New College. After he appointed six conservatives to the board of trustees, the group quickly dismissed New College’s former president and set off to remake the institution.

“In recent years, lawmakers have made it easier for schools to fire tenured faculty. Professors who should be shielded from political interference are feeling pressured to keep quiet,” Ian says.

“On top of job security, many just don’t want to be in the public spotlight. None of the professors I’ve spoken to got into the teaching game in order to be dragged on Twitter for disagreeing with state leaders.”

— Colleen Murphy

Our national education awards finalists

Ryanna Pruett, left, and her older sister, Shaelea, stand beside a pen containing bulls on their family farm in Manzanola, Colorado, just east of Fowler. The sisters graduated from Fowler High School, still live on the farm. Shaelea Pruett will continue her education at Colorado State University Pueblo in the fall. Ryanna Pruett attends Otero College in La Junta.Mark Reis for Chalkbeat

Molly Minta and Jason Gonzales, two of our Local Network reporters, were named finalists this week for the Education Writers Association’s national education reporting awards.

Molly, who works for Mississippi Today, is a finalist in the features category for her coverage of critical race theory. As debate raged across the country, Molly took us inside Mississippi’s only critical race theory class. Her story, which featured the experiences of a self-described conservative student who took the class to form her own opinions, was featured on MSNBC and CNN.

“Why are they so fearful of people just theorizing and just thinking?” the student, Brittany Murphree, told Molly. Ultimately, she said, it was “the most impactful and enlightening course” she’d taken at the University of Mississippi.

Jason, who works for Chalkbeat Colorado, is a finalist for the Eddie Prize, which honors journalism that furthers the national conversation about college completion among low-income students.

His stories focused on the decisions that left Colorado and its low-income communities ill-prepared to rebound from the pandemic — and what the state is now trying to do about it:

  • From rural Fowler, he told the story of how the tiny town built a culture of college-going, bucking statewide trends.
  • He examined Colorado’s gaps in college completion for students of color, some of the largest in the nation, and the state’s post-pandemic response.
  • And as students struggle to adapt to college after high school in a pandemic, he explored how a Colorado college is working to give freshmen the skills they missed.

— Sara Hebel

Complicating the narrative

Students gather during Morehouse College Founders Day, Feb. 14, 2023. (Auzzy Byrdsell)

We talk to our reporters often about complicating the narrative with their reporting — asking the unexpected questions, looking for new angles on well-trod topics. We had two strong examples of this come out this week.

First, from Auzzy Byrdsell, one of our HBCU Student Journalism Network fellows: A meaningful culture shift is under way at Morehouse College. What was once a campus rooted in traditional views of masculinity is becoming a more inclusive place for queer students.

“We don’t want to put masculinity in a box,” freshman LaQuinton Gaines told Auzzy. “We’re confronting the norms. The Morehouse man in 2023 is gay, straight, nonbinary, and maybe transitioning.”

++ We’re raising money to grow our HBCU Student Journalism Network. If stories like Auzzy’s are important to you, please support us.

And, from Lisa Philip at WBEZ Chicago: Often when people picture a college student, they think of someone headed there right out of high school. As readers of this newsletter know, that isn’t always the case.

Lisa spent a day with Stephanie Quintana, a 30-year-old mother of two who is nearing graduation at Northeastern Illinois University. It’s a great example of why in-depth, local higher education coverage matters: Stephanie’s story is important.

++ Lisa also talked to faculty and staff at Northeastern who are fighting for their university amid steep enrollment declines.

Elsewhere on Open Campus

Students at the University of California-Santa Cruz practice setting up the equipment they’ll use to make documentaries featuring wrongful conviction cases. (Photo: Maddison Hwang/Open Campus)

From College Inside: Students in the “Making an Exoneree” course at Georgetown University and University of California-Santa Cruz are helping wrongfully convicted people get out of prisons. Charlotte West, our reporter on prisons and postsecondary higher education, takes you through their process.

From Colorado: A bill under consideration in the state legislature would guarantee the right of Native American students to wear regalia at graduation.

From Mississippi: Molly Minta obtained a request from the Mississippi Office of the State Auditor asking public universities in the state to detail spending on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. It’s the latest example of state scrutiny of DEI in higher ed.

From Pittsburgh: Emma Folts talked to Pittsburghers about what the student-loan payment pause has meant for them — and what anxieties they have about the future.

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