Haunting Bias

A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article offers a great analogy: “Many of us are ready to accept that placebos can work in general, just not on us. A similar dynamic exists with implicit biases.” And yes, I think that’s probably true for many, but what about those of us who have taken the time to attend seminars, take self-assessments, learn more about others and intentionally tried to break down our own biases? I ask because sometimes I feel overly conscious of my potential for bias as a result  of all of the emphasis on implicit bias. I fluctuate, sometimes I fall into old or new bias and then later, upon reflecting on some conversation or thought I think, “oh my… how could I?” and then! sometimes, not always, I get hyper sensitive. It feels like everything could stem from bias and in these moments I think I over correct or withdraw. So, sometimes, I wish there were better ways of combating implicit biases among faculty and students– instead of mandatory (or voluntary) training, I wish there were more university sanctioned opportunities for fun and engaging cultural exchange. And, not just traveling abroad, but cultural exchange right here on campus. I often think back to the library project sponsored a few years ago where you could “check out” people and learn more about their life experience. I feel like that kind of activity is more effective, really helps us change, rather than simply being more aware of the biases we hold. Wouldn’t it be nice to sit down to coffee, lunch, dinner or a drink with someone you wouldn’t have except for wanting to know something more about someone else? Those experiences were so easy to come by when I was an undergrad, but now with family, work, class, etc. they don’t come as easy and they feel more awkward since I have to seek them out. It’s hard enough finding people who share similar experiences–I mean people to commiserate with about being a new mom, balancing work and school, etc!

I’m starting to feel like we’re over prescribing the we way people should be, should think, should act and in doing so, probably self-censoring too much. Isn’t there a better way? Instead of trying to teach us how to reflect, can’t we create experiences that foster self-reflection organically? David Gooblar, the author of the article I mentioned above suggests that the classroom can provide such an experience and I tend to agree, but is it enough? I would like to see us foster more opportunities to really connect as a community. It’s a lot to ask and to find the time, I feel like we have to give up some of our pursuit of individual success (work, class, and other things that keep us so busy).

Laptops in Class

Every time I attend class, I notice everyone’s different ways of multi-tasking. Some doodle, maybe to expend energy, some browse the internet looking for more information on (or fact checking) whatever we’re talking about, some work on other things while they listen, some shop–maybe akin to doodling, I check my e-mail and my text messages (gotta make sure work is moving along and there isn’t a baby crisis), some very-focused and at-peace individuals sit listening without engaging any other media/entertainment/focus outlet– I’m always in awe of this group, at least during our class it seems like they have achieved some kind of enlightenment.

I would not have thought to write about this subject until I ran across “Don’t Insult Your Class by Banning Laptops” in the opinion section of the Chronicle of Higher Education. In response to the idea that laptops and other forms of tech tend to distract from a lecture, Mathew Numer explains, ” I’ve studied the effects of technology on university students, and I have found that it not only improves learning, it increases my students’ critical thinking abilities.” I guess I can see how that might be true! Aren’t we more likely to think critically when we have an outlet for following down paths of thought or checking our theories and assumption in real time? And, that outlet is really needed when there isn’t time for everyone to engage in conversation. Numer suggests that students should be insulted by a ban on laptops in class– after all, we’re not children. And, he further suggests ways that laptops can help enhance the classroom, much of which we have experienced in our GRAD 5104 class. Thanks Abram. Thank Dean DePauw.

All in all, I tend to agree with Numer. Students have to learn how to manage themselves in class and if we ban laptops or other items (a long time ago, one of my professors tried to ban newspapers in class), how will they learn? By the time they are in grad school or a staff meeting, they will need to know how to stay engaged and will need a good understanding of how others perceive their use of technology during class or in a meeting.

Housing Assistance for Faculty and Staff

As the Town of Blacksburg updates it’s comprehensive plan, I’ve been having lots of discussions about the need for more affordable housing in town and nearby. Often the town talks about housing for graduate students, staff and junior faculty as being a need and priority. The town also values affordable student housing. Inevitably, these discussions lead to folks to ask, why do we have a housing affordability problem? Why is housing so expensive and why can’t some people afford to live in town? Part of the answer is a high demand and a small supply of housing. Another part of the answer is low wages paid to staff and some faculty at the university.  Median gross rent (rent plus utilities) is $887/month in Montgomery County according to the latest American Community Survey estimates. In order to comfortably afford the median rent, a household needs to have an annual income of about $42,576. The median gross rent in Blacksburg is higher, $998/month. A household would need an income of $47,904 annually to comfortably afford $998 per month. The university pays nearly half, 44%, of it’s employees, less than $50,000 per year. 395 employees earn less than $25,000 annually. Some workers could not afford the County median rent if they shared the cost with someone making same amount of money. The lowest paid workers would be living well below the U.S. poverty line if they are a single-earner household with any dependents. You can find this pay information in the Richmond Times Dispatch “2016-2017 salaries of Virginia state employees” database.

So, what is the University’s responsibility? Certainly to pay a living wage, but if need be, could they provide a housing benefit?

George Mason has developed rental housing for faculty and staff in response to high housing costs in Fairfax County. ‘Masonvale” has 157 rental units with below-market rents which the University offers to faculty, staff and county municipal employees for up to three years. The idea is that Masonvale provides “stepping stone” housing  for new employees who may not be able to afford housing in Fairfax County until they have been working in their position for a number of years. The housing is basically a recruitment tool and assumes that those taking advantage of this benefit will be earning a living wage/salary and have enough saved for a security deposit or down payment within a few years. You can read more in this Urban Land Institute case study.

Other universities offer housing benefits in the form of down-payment assistance. The university of Chicago “provides up to $10,000 in down payment assistance and up to $2,400 in rental assistance to eligible employees who move to one of the communities surrounding campus depending on home or rental location.” The University of Chicago’s housing benefit is probably one of the oldest housing benefits for  university employees and was born out of an effort to gentrify the surrounding neighborhood when crime rates discouraged student applications, but other universities are offering similar benefits. Here are some more examples: Temple, the University of Colorado, and the University of Kentucky. UK’s benefit seems most earnestly aimed at helping employee who earn lower wages to buy a home which is really important because homeownership is the primary way households built wealth in the US.

So, conclusions: Housing benefits can help universities recruit employees and help increase employee quality of life, thereby helping the university retain employees. As of yet, Virginia Tech does not offer any such benefit, but maybe something is in the works?!? Afterall, it seems exploitative to pay some employees so little that they must commute from West Virginia in order to access housing and even then, they are likely still financially strained.

Experiential Learning

I have always thought that the work of academics should be more applied and that researchers should work to ensure that their work has some practical meaning that is accessible to those who are able to use their conclusions. I think NSF has driven us to be more applied by requiring researchers to facilitate broader impacts and university centers, like the one I work for, and others help disseminate an apply university research. That said,  I think every faculty member conducting research should be responsible for assisting in the dissemination and application of their research.  In a way, this responsibility is linked to many of the faculty responsibilities we talked about in our first few classes.

To that end, I think higher education should be more experiential. I envision a future where students and faculty spend less time and resources on class-room teaching and learning and more time working together to bring meaningful change through research and its application. For example, I think students who have the opportunity to work with the Center for Housing Research get to apply what they have learned in their course work, develop specific skills to meet the needs of our project sponsors, understand how to analyze and interpret data so that it is usable by our clients and even take it a step further, helping our clients figure out how to apply our findings. From what I understand, this experience is all too rare.

I agree with Carlos F. Mantilla P. (from our class) — he wrote in a recent blog post that internships are “kind of necessary.”  And I further agree that ideally, something akin to internships, but longer, more involved and professor-led would be included in every semester and every degree program. My vision is that students would be involved in faculty research throughout their time in college until they begin their own research as Masters or Doctoral students. Just for discussion’s sake here is a possible trajectory.

1st year undergraduate students are all involved in data collection. Think about how much data we could collect if we mobilized our entire undergraduate population!! As part of a housing conditions study in James City County we trained undergraduate students at William and Mary to collect data about housing conditions. The students drove by and assessed the condition of almost 20,000 houses. You can read more about it here. As a part of the experience, these student should read the research proposal for the research  to which they are contributing and be required to check back in on the research throughout their time in college.

2nd year undergraduates can choose to continue to participate in the same study or begin data collection in a new study. Or, if they have already committed to a major, they should begin working with a faculty adviser and contributing to his or her research.

3rd year undergraduates must be contributing to research in their major field.

4th and 5th year undergraduates continue with their in-major research and one of their final degree requirements should be making efforts to disseminate and apply the research they have been working on in an internship-like setting.

I think such a trajectory would help students better prepare for jobs and for further higher education. And, when students go on to be practitioners, they are better able to seek out and apply relevant research, so that eventually we have researchers and practitioners working together. Researchers working to disseminate and apply their work and practitioners seeking out research and working to ensure that their work employs the most recent and relevant knowledge available.

Housing Insecurity Among Students: Part 2

In my previous post I promised to return to the subject of college student homelessness and discuss what can and is being done to help college students who experience or are at risk for homelessness.

As a faculty member and PhD student at Virginia Tech, I wanted to see if I could find out about our University’s efforts first. Although I feel confident that the Dean of Students Office would offer help if a student made his or her challenges known, not much regarding resources is available online. In a 2013 VT News article about the 209 Manna Ministry, a food bank near campus for students experiencing food insecurity, the Dean of Students, Tom Brown, was quoted: “Occasionally, about once a year or so, we will identify a homeless student.” So, maybe student homelessness is too rare to have specific resources dedicated to this challenge, however I imagine that student homelessness is similar to homelessness at-large– it’s hard to identify and count people experiencing homelessness, so the most important thing is to make resources available, well publicized, and to the degree possible, reduce the stigma around accepting those resources. And, the 209 Manna Ministry, might be an excellent place to do just that!– food banks and other places providing food for people experiencing homelessness are often program intake points. A more recent article in the Roanoke times reports that the food bank serves about 12 students a week and has more than 50 students registered on its permanent role, about 10% of whom come to the pantry seeking items for their children. Based on the number of students served by the Manna Ministry and on the number of self-reporting students experiencing homelessness nation-wide, most colleges should probably have a well-publicized “Single Point of Contact” for students experiencing homelessness or other kinds of housing insecurity.

A single point of contact is one of the strategies recommended in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) resource, “Addressing Housing Insecurity and Living Costs in Higher Education: A Guidebook for Colleges and Universities.” The report discusses 13 high-level strategies for serving students who are experiencing housing insecurity, some of which seem like easy-to-implement, primarily administrative actions:

  • Proactive, systematic outreach;
  • Connect students with benefits, coordinating aid and partnering with other organizations that offer services to people experiencing homelessness;
  • Allow students to use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits on campus– I can’t find evidence online that you can use SNAP/EBT anywhere on campus at Virginia Tech.

Other solutions seem to be more complicated or require additional funding, but would make a big difference for students who are are at-risk for homelessness or already experiencing homelessness. Here are the last few strategies recommended by HUD PD&R:

  • Ensure that financial aid is provided in time for students to secure housing (pay security deposits, etc)
  • Provide emergency housing and housing during breaks for students who need it
  • Provide emergency aid and microgrants (think emergency heating assistance)
  • Provide financial literacy classes/programming and
  • Coordinate/provide childcare.

All-in-all, a little could go a long way for a student at-risk for homelessness. Just one of these strategies might help them avoid homelessness all together, which can save them (and their children) from a host of consequences stemming from homelessness and involuntary mobility.


Housing Insecurity Among Students: Part 1

The impact of housing instability on children is well documented. Children who experience housing instability have negative heath outcomes and less academic success than children with stable housing. And what’s more, these negative impacts extend into adulthood, impacting their future economic opportunities. Housing instability among college students is less well documented– perhaps because people think of low-incomes among college students as a somewhat temporary, less serious circumstances. On the contrary, homelessness not only impedes academic performance and degree completion, but could put students at risk physically and the associated financial insecurity could threaten their future.

I was surprised to read some of the stats in a HUD PD&R (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research) guidebook: “Addressing Housing Insecurity and Living Costs in Higher Education.” The guidebook explains that many college students have responsibilities that compete with academics for their time and money. The most striking stat was that more than 15% of undergraduate students are single parents. The Wisconsin HOPE Lab co-authored the guidebook with PD&R, so there are also a lot of stats on Wisconsin but these problems are not likely to be isolated to Wisconsin, so they’re interesting.  In a survey of 4,000 students in 10 community colleges, HOPE Lab found that nearly one half of respondents struggle with food or housing insecurity.

I snooped around to see what else I could find on this topic. Another PD&R article, “Barriers to Success: Housing Insecurity for U.S. College Students” notes that college tuition, like housing costs, is rising while real incomes remain stagnant or even decrease, making it harder and harder for students to afford both tuition and necessities like housing, food, and medical care. The article explains that many students struggle to find adequate affordable housing and that at least 56,000 college students experience homelessness.

The Chronicle of Higher Education had tackled the subject in “How to Help the Students With No Homes?” The Chronicle profiles a Virginia student who has been chronically homeless since age 7. During the school year she lives on campus in the dorms, but during breaks, she experiences homelessness. The Chronicle also gets to what I mentioned in the beginning of this post–college student homelessness is not well documented. The article explains, “homeless college students remain a largely invisible population — often indistinguishable from their peers and overlooked in policy debates. They get less attention than former foster youth and are often excluded from programs and policies benefiting such students. Many hide their homelessness from professors and peers out of shame or fear of being pitied. Many college administrators aren’t even aware that homeless students are present on their campuses.” What’s more, most of the information I found on college student homelessness is somewhat dated even though the problem is still widespread and sure to get worse if new taxes are imposed on graduate students.

So what can be done and what is being done to help college students who experience homelessness? I’ll look for solutions and discuss what’s out there in a follow-up post.

Living Tech

Our homes and the way we use them are changing as technology becomes more expansive and accessible. Now, realtors hear prospective buyers ask about upload speed before school quality and crime statistics. More and more people work from home at least some of the time, many learn from home, and we consume more entertainment media from home. On-campus student residences (dorms) are no different, in fact they’re at the forefront of this trend. But, is the in-dorm, learning experience diluting or enhancing the college experience? There are faculty on both sides of the argument, but I think, at the end of the day, it’s got to enhance the learning experience.

The New York Times published an article in 2010 about students taking online classes from their dorms. Even though they could walk to class, they chose to stay home and attend class online. Other classes were only online, with too many students to accommodate in a classroom. Some faculty lamented the loss of in-person teaching and learning while others embraced it for practical reasons like budget requirements and ability to re-watch the lecture. Now, we’re a long way from just taking classes from the dorms. Universities and their students are beginning to integrate learning in the dorms in a big way– with high tech labs adjacent to (or in!) students’ rooms.

Here are some examples:

Residence-life coordinators seem to have fully embraced this opportunity as an enhancement for students (at least that’s what the propaganda suggests), but how do faculty feel? My scan of a whole lot of articles seems to indicate that faculty embrace the living-learning model and make it ever-more successful. That said, this seems like an “opt-in” role for faculty, not a prescribed technological change. Some faculty go all in and opt to become faculty in residence. There are ups and down’s to becoming a faculty in residence, as one might expect. The experience of a few is documented in this article from Inside Higher Ed.  Further, this article from the Chronicle suggests that faculty experience unforeseen benefits from cross-disciplinary interactions with other faculty in living-learning environments. The benefits don’t necessarily stem directly from the technology, the technology just helps to set the mood.  I had to hunt for it, but there are also unforeseen consequences documented in David Buchanan Smith’s dissertation, Unintended Consequences of Collegiate Living Learning Community Programs at a Public University. Although I didn’t read the whole thing, the gist seems to be that students experience consequences when, over time, faculty and coordinators disengage. However, he doesn’t cite technology as part of the challenge, rather lack of planning, lack of maintenance and contentious relationships between faculty and staff were all cited as possible sources of the consequences. Indeed, I think that technology is usually an enhancement with the right planning and maintenance bolstered by good communication, the bedrock of good relationships.

Working to Get Fired, Based on True Story

There isn’t a satisfying amount of information in the recent U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Research Integrity (ORI) case summaries. If you want to know more you have to go digging, and even then, it seems like you would have to work pretty hard to get the full story. So, by way of discussion I’ve written a story based on what I came across regarding this case. It’s based on the facts, but I tried to imagine some details about why Mr. Sauer would falsify research results and what he was thinking along the way.

Striving to get ahead, Frank Sauer, formerly a professor at University of California, Riverside, presented 7 falsified/fabricated images in 3 publications and 7 grant applications– yikes! I guess he thought his falsification was minor, and he didn’t get the memo that his university takes this kind of falsification seriously and considers any falsification or fabrication of research wholly unethical. The university, no doubt, understands how the actions of one can impact many (other researchers at the university, other researchers building on Mr. Sauer’s work, students, people benefiting or harmed by the application of the research–just to name a few). His university discovered the fabrication and started a chain reaction of review and investigation. ORI “found by a preponderance of the evidence that the Respondent [Sauer] engaged in research misconduct…” and charged Mr. Sauer as such. “This will end my tenure,” thought Mr. Sauer, “What can I do?” By this time, after participating in investigation after review, after investigation, Mr. Sauer finally realized the potential repercussions of his actions. Still, he could not bear to be set back. He requested a hearing before the Administrative Law Judge of the ORI Department of Appeals Board, where he claimed that the falsification, although generated by him, was not his fault. “I’ve been hacked!,” he explained, but again he was found to be fabricating. His elaborate story of his data being hacked was easily tested since he supplied a falsely notarized statement from the supposed German data hacker. Little did he know that the German government keeps a record of notarized documents and upon being asked, German officials explained that the statement and notarization was likely forged. You can get the facts from the ORI blog post, “Falsification and Forgery: Administrative Law Judge Upholds ORI’s Findings of Research Misconduct Against Former Biochemistry Professor.” So even though ORI just sanctioned him and according to Retraction Watch, “What a report into scientific misconduct reveals: The case of Frank Sauer,” did not recommend that he be fired, how could the university ignore such fabrication followed not by apology, but by another fabrication? It seems that Mr. Sauer’s case proved him to be unethical and rather incompetent, so all of that work got him fired. You have to wonder, what if he had used his energy for good? And, where is he now?

Mission for Me in Higher Ed

Mission statements became really important to me when I learned what they are supposed to mean and do for non-profits. Ever since then, I’ve taken them pretty seriously. I use the mission of the Virginia Center for Housing Research as a guide in my work and I use the mission statements of other organizations to assess their work. That said, they’re up for interpretation so there is always ambiguity and their meaning may change even though their composition does not.

I’ve attended two universities as a full-time student: American University and Virginia Tech. Virginia Tech is a state school. American in a private school and a non-profit organization. Before today, I’d never looked at the mission statement for either and maybe I didn’t need to. I chose these Universities because I knew what they were about–they made it clear through their websites, promotional materials, and most importantly, their programmatic offerings– and then they influenced me, probably drew me in a bit deeper over all those years. Here’s what I’m getting at… both American and Virginia Tech are service oriented and so am I. And in my singular experience, both Universities live their missions.

You can find American’s mission here. They call it “Statement of Common Purpose, American University’s Mission”– I think the combination of purpose and mission allows it to be longer than a traditional mission statement. American says that it has a unique ability to “turn ideas into action and action into service.” And after providing some background information cuts to the chase: “The central commitment of American University is to the development of thoughtful, responsible human beings in the context of a challenging yet supportive academic community.”

Virginia Tech’s mission statement is clear and concise. There’s also a “Statement of Purpose,” but they didn’t bury their mission statement in it for the reader to find/identify. Relative to American, Virginia Tech gets more specific about how it will serve “the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world community.” Tech says is will “expand personal growth and opportunity, advance social and community development, foster economic competitiveness, and improve the quality of life.” The “economic competitiveness” bit strikes me particularly, because it shows that Virginia Tech subscribes to a less than universal ideology.

I had expected both missions to be pretty vanilla, something everyone could accept and get behind, but that’s not necessarily the case! I took another, closer look to AU’s mission. Did it have the same flavor? Did it subscribe to an ideology too, taking what could be interpreted as a political stance? And indeed it did, through its “commitment to social justice.”

From my perspective these two ideological leanings make relative sense. AU has a very liberal, leftist history and it comes through in the beliefs of faculty and many students. Tech’s history has a more conservative bent, and although service is one of it’s three pillars, the three are more equally balanced than at AU where service felt more central. Again, this is my interpretation and colored in part by my experience at each school.

And here’s where the ambiguity and room for interpretation is great: I get to make these missions my own and live them how they make sense to me.  What’s more, I get to take some of the AU “social justice” mission with me and carry it through in my work at Virginia Tech. And while I focus on the “community development” bit of the Virginia Tech mission, I get the importance of the “economic competitiveness” piece and benefit from it. I’m thinking of the resources I have access to and Tech’s reputation that I benefit from. Further, I try to inject the economic competitiveness piece into my work to benefit the people I serve.

All in all, the depth of both missions, their reach and persistence as they live on through faculty and alumni is a really cool thing to think about. It’s crazy how much a short statement can mean when it’s a reflection of your life, past present and future.






Existing Housing Stock TO Green Affordable Housing and BACK TO the Open Market

In the area where I live, communities are growing more conscience and concerned about energy conservation and efficiency. Some local governments are making important investments in the housing stock by offering incentives for homeowners to get energy audits and retrofit their homes for energy efficiency. Nonetheless, many homeowners remain wary of the process. It takes a homeowner with an unusual knowledge of green building practices, an unusual commitment to the environment, and/or unusual faith in technologies to dive right in and “green” their home.

Relying on homeowners to take the initiative cannot be the only strategy for “greening” the existing housing stock, so here’s an idea. Transfer some existing housing into affordable housing and retrofit them for energy efficiency at the same time. The affordability restrictions don’t have to remain forever. Ideally, they wouldn’t. The “greened” housing could cycle back into the market and municipalities can focus on “greening” additional properties. The key is retrofit them while they’re in your control.

I was inspired by Boulder, CO. Boulder has growth restrictions which have caused the price of housing to rise faster that it might have otherwise. So, Boulder adopted inclusionary zoning policies to ensure that low, moderate, and middle income folks can afford to live in the city. What’s unique is that Boulder allows developers to fulfill their affordable housing requirements by renovating existing homes and selling them to a qualifying family or turning them into affordable rental properties. They didn’t want to contradict their growth restrictions.

With Boulder, Co and Burlington, VT as my inspiration, here are some details of my policy idea (notable details, like logical incentive structures for every step are not totally worked out yet, but bear with me… they will probably be different for each community anyway):

  1. Establish a community land trust or something that would serve the same function. The community land trust should be flexible, with graduated goals for the amount of housing in the trust. Homes in the trust don’t have to stay there forever, in fact my idea will only work if homes cycle out of the trust while new homes are acquired.
  2. Establish some affordable housing development requirement.
  3. Now, give developers some options: develop affordable housing, donate housing to the land trust, and/or renovate housing already in the  land trust. Cash would be the less fancy, but sometimes more efficienct option. (You can add all kinds of nuances like, if the developer’s planned development is already “green” beyond code requirements, you can acknowledge the intrinsic affordability of  “greenness” and count that toward meeting the affordable housing development requirement!)
  4. Renovations must be “green” and adhere to strict minimum building performance requirements.
  5. Give residents of land trust homes incentives to make additional green improvements. Give them a list of qualifying improvements and the requirements for the work, then demonstrate the value you place on those improvements by giving them more equity stake in the house. (This step has some important educational value.)
  6. Once a trust property has been “greened” to your high standard, it is more affordable to live in (it’s more energy efficient, more durable, and offers a healthier indoor environment) and more valuable, so let it be sold out of the trust.
  7. Acquire a new property in it’s place and let it be “greened!”
  8. Keep the cycle going! After all, you have an unusual knowledge of green building practices, an unusual commitment to the environment, and/or unusual faith in technologies! You gotta be the one to invest in this process. Experience in “green” homes is probably the only thing that will convince your average homeowner/buyer to go “green”.

There are the basics. To clarify (in case it wasn’t obvious), the “you” I am speaking to are communities as wholes (all you invested citizens),  local governments, and their partners that might be able implement some fashion of this idea.

Ensure affordable housing and “green” your community’s housing stock AT THE SAME TIME! What do you think?