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The Most Influential Forces In Higher Ed In 2013

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In the world of higher education, 2013 was a wild year.

Thanks to the Internet and social media, students gained notoriety as the "Deranged Sorority Girl" and the "Drunkest College Student Ever," and professors learned that fat-shaming tweets could affect their employment prospects. On the more serious side, a number of colleges were accused of failing to properly handle sexual assaults, and student debt surpassed $1 trillion and kept climbing.

We looked back and picked the people and organizations that made the biggest splash in higher education in 2013, and are most likely to continue making an impact next year.

  • University of Alabama Students
    Fifty years ago, it took the National Guard to get black students into the classrooms at the University of Alabama. This year, it took a new generation of undergraduates to challenge alumni and administrators to get rid of the "final barrier" to integration in campus life.

    The student newspaper, the Crimson White, reported in September that sororities remained mostly divided along racial lines, and even though women in mostly white sororities wanted to offer bids to black students, white alumnae were preventing them from doing so. The story quickly attracted national attention, and women like Melanie Gotz came forward to speak out about what happened during Greek recruitment. Students, including an anti-racist group called the Mallet Assembly, kept up pressure until a compromise was reached.

    In the end, the first bids ever were offered to black women from mostly white sororities.
  • President Barack Obama
    President Barack Obama sparked a big debate in higher ed by proposing a national rating system for colleges that would rank schools according to affordability, accessibility and outcomes for students. Eventually, federal financial aid and grant money would be tied to this system.

    The plan became an endless topic for discussion at education conferences and among administrators. Most college presidents were wary of how the system would actually be applied. Some schools could lose money. Some worried the best data wouldn't be reviewed, or that colleges serving poor and thus underprepared would be punished because they couldn't meet the standards.

    Of course, Congress would have to get on board to pass the president's full proposal. But Obama put it forward at a critical time, as lawmakers face the scheduled reauthorization of the country's higher education laws in 2014.
  • Elizabeth Warren
    Getty Images
    During last year's fight over certain federal student loan interest rates -- in the middle of the presidential campaign -- Congress kicked the can down the road for a year. When the debate came back in 2013, a highly visible and newly elected U.S. senator sought to change the conversation.

    Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) criticized the Education Department for making too much profit off student loans. The first bill she offered in the Senate sought to drastically lower student loan interest rates to match those banks get when they borrow from the U.S. Treasury, and it earned a heaping helping of support from higher education and student advocacy groups. College presidents approved of the bill, and even Republican voters supported it.

    Warren's measure ultimately lost, as Congress passed legislation tying student loan interest rates to changes in the market. But she vowed in September that she would not give up and would continue to fight for student loan policies that she believes better favor consumers.
  • FAU Student Activists
    Twitter: uppressonline
    A wealthy for-profit prison company tried to buy a football stadium, and a bunch of undergraduate student protesters stopped it.

    Florida Atlantic University announced in February that it would name its football stadium after The Geo Group, Inc., a for-profit prison company run by an FAU alum and headquartered nearby. The move was instantly controversial, largely due to the company's checkered past, including reports of sexual misconduct at one of Geo's youth correctional facilities.

    FAU officials insisted the deal was done, but students weren't having it. By early April, the deal was scrapped and FAU lost the $6 million Geo would have paid for the naming rights. Mary Jane Saunders resigned from her post as the university's president a month later.
  • FIRE
    The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education isn't a household name, but this free-speech group is quite effective and scored several victories this year.

    FIRE battles against "Free Speech Zones" on college campuses -- areas that schools designate as the only spot where students may assemble and protest whenever they want.

    In one example, a student at Modesto Junior College was told to not hand out copies of the Constitution on Constitution Day. Video of the incident went viral thanks to FIRE's help circulating it, and the school agreed to scrap its "free speech zone" as it worked on settling a lawsuit from the student.

    In another high-profile instance, FIRE criticized the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and the Department of Justice for a resolution with the University of Montana requiring the school to take certain steps to fix problems with reports of rape on campus. The OCR called the UM agreement a "blueprint" for other schools, and FIRE pounced on the document, saying its definitions of harassment violated free speech. Conservative critics picked up on the "blueprint" as well, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) began poking around on the issue.

    Federal attorneys maintain they never intended for the UM resolution to set the rules for every college in the country, but FIRE declared victory in November, saying the feds were backing off.
  • Adjuncts
    In September, an op-ed detailing the last days of Duquesne University adjunct instructor Margaret Mary Vojtko went viral, and she became emblematic of the struggle many adjuncts face. Despite working at the school for two decades, Vojtko made less than $25,000 a year, with no health benefits.

    Adjuncts like her are part-time instructors who typically do not receive benefits or the same compensation as full-time tenured professors, even though they now comprise a majority of the faculty teaching at U.S. colleges and universities. This year, a number of colleges moved to set limits on how many hours adjuncts can work in an attempt to avoid providing them health coverage.

    Adjuncts usually don't have a union to fight for them, but that's changing as they increasingly organize, aided by new rules under the Affordable Care Act about who counts as a full-time employee.

    The feds have yet to weigh in, and the debate about the role of adjuncts in higher education is just getting started. And the adjuncts are getting louder.
  • Andrea Pino and Annie Clark
    Courtesy Photo
    A year ago, Annie Clark was working at the University of Oregon. Andrea Pino was going through life as a normal student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Clark's alma mater.

    Then Pino and Clark joined with three other women in January to file two federal complaints against UNC alleging underreporting of sexual assaults and mishandling of cases by administrators. Their filing sparked investigations and a nationwide movement to tackle sexual violence on college campuses.

    Clark and Pino accused faculty at the prestigious public university of making disparaging comments to survivors and underreporting attacks on campus. The women soon learned their charges weren't too different from those leveled by students at Yale University and Amherst College. They networked, sharing information and connecting with women at other schools.

    Pino and Clark spent hours studying case history and helping students file complaints against colleges like Occidental, Swarthmore, the University of Southern California, Dartmouth and several others.

    As a result, how schools should handle sexual assault cases was discussed at education conferences and even at schools that weren't accused of failing in their response. Experts at women's advocacy groups, free-speech think tanks, faculty, reporters and federal officials have marveled at the impact the women had in such a short amount of time.

    Pino and Clark readily acknowledge they aren't acting alone, and the current wave of activism around rape culture and Title IX complaints is sure to continue in 2014.
  • The Internet's Wrath
    The wrath of the Internet was felt by students and faculty alike in 2013, as many were still getting used to the limits of privacy in this hyper-connected world.

    Ill-advised tweets from faculty based at the University of New Mexico and the University of Kansas put professors' employment in jeopardy. Leaked emails from fraternity and sorority members went viral to wide condemnation. Redditors falsely pinpointed a missing Brown University student as one of the Boston bombing suspects, only for his body to be found days later. Dartmouth canceled classes after students faced harassment in anonymous online messages in response to a campus demonstration. A student who thought she was just drinking and having a good time at a University of Iowa football game was mocked around the world as "Vodka Samm" after she tweeted about getting arrested for public intoxication.

    Millennials may have come of age used to over-sharing on mobile gadgets, but there's still a lot to learn about what college students can say online.

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