Lauren Rubenstein

Director of Media & Public Relations at Wesleyan University

NSF Funds Mark’s Research Into Impact of Pandemic on Courts

Alyx Mark

Alyx Mark

Assistant Professor of Government Alyx Mark studies the American separation of powers system, access to justice, and Supreme Court decision-making. She was recently awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant to study the response of state courts to the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Congratulations on receiving the NSF RAPID grant! Can you please explain how this opportunity came about?

Near the beginning of the pandemic, NSF sent out a Dear Colleague letter soliciting project proposals related to COVID-19. When I read that letter, my first thought was that this was relegated to epidemiologists and others working in areas directly applicable to studying the pandemic. But when I began thinking about how it related to my own research, I realized there are quite significant impacts to how court systems work as a result of the pandemic. I submitted a brief overview of a project idea, and then they invited me to submit a full proposal. The funding was just awarded, and ultimately the whole process took just under a month—versus four months or more, which is typical for NSF funding. The NSF has a special funding stream that is exclusive to these types of projects.

Can you share more about your proposed research project?

Thanks to our federalist system of government, states have considerable authority to dictate how their courts operate, how they’re organized, what types of specialty courts they have, etc. It is very rare that a massive shock like this forces every state to respond. Hurricane Katrina was a similar example, when many states in the South had to rethink how courts and other government processes worked in the wake of the catastrophic disaster.

When the COVID-19 pandemic started, I became interested in studying how states were moving their courts to remote operations at different speeds and in different ways. I thought it would be interesting to catalog all the ways that states are meeting this challenge, and to speak to the people who are implementing the procedures. I’m also very interested in studying the impact of remote operations on people who use the courts to solve their legal problems. I want to know whether the innovations being forced by the pandemic are mitigating or aggravating existing access challenges for vulnerable populations. I plan to focus the project on civil justice, such as landlord-tenant disputes, family law, debt collection cases, and so on. One reason for this is that people don’t have the same types of constitutional protections on the civil side that they have on the criminal side, such as guaranteed counsel.

What are these existing barriers to access that you’ve alluded to with regard to civil courts?

One of the main barriers we see for vulnerable populations is a lack of access to affordable legal assistance. I’m conducting research on reforms to the legal profession in Utah with Anna Carpenter, a law professor at the University of Utah. A recent report revealed that over 90 percent of civil court cases in the Salt Lake City area involved at least one party that was not represented by a lawyer. What’s happening in Utah is not unique—across the country, it is estimated that the vast majority of people represent themselves in civil court, yet these people are much less likely to have a favorable outcome. Also, courts may not be easy to physically access, particularly for people who live in rural areas or lack transportation. And for people who can get to court, there can be challenges with accessing the information they find there. For example, is the information that courts are providing understandable to you? Are court forms written in your language, or at a grade level you can read? Beyond all that, many people who are faced with a civil legal problem do not identify the problem as something that can be addressed through the justice system. Rebecca Sandefur, a scholar many in the access to justice field look up to (including me!), uses an iceberg to describe this phenomenon, with the tip of the iceberg being people who actually go to court, and underneath the water being everyone else who doesn’t realize they can use the justice system to solve their problems.

How do you plan to conduct your research?

There are three stages to the project. The first stage is a comprehensive scan of all the changes that every state court in the U.S. has made in response to the pandemic, ranging from their courts of last resort to municipal courts. The support from the NSF enables me to work with three undergraduates on conducting this data collection effort. In the second stage, I’m interested in speaking with the people who have both designed and implemented these changes. Who are these people, both internal and external to the court system, who have been working on these innovations and reforms, and how are they feeling about how it’s going? Finally, I plan to investigate this question about whether these innovations have had any impact on access to justice for vulnerable populations. I’ll be working with the Quantitative Analysis Center (QAC) on analysis for this stage.

It’s still early in your research, but what have you seen thus far in terms of how courts are responding to the pandemic? 

Three main types of changes to hearings are emerging. In some states, I’ve seen delays or pauses on all jury trials and all non-emergency types of cases. In others, I’ve seen shifts to online or telephonic hearings. For example, the Texas Supreme Court is holding its oral arguments on Zoom, with all the justices and the two attorneys in the middle of their “Brady Bunch” square. And then in some places, emergency cases, such as domestic violence cases, are still being physically held in courts, with social distancing measures being taken for safety.

When we see these courts moving operations to a remote space in a very short period of time, the question becomes, what is the added risk of having these processes happen remotely? If it doesn’t appear to be adding significant risks, then perhaps courts can consider extending some of these policies beyond the pandemic to improve access for those vulnerable populations. We’re seeing this very rare surge of innovation as a consequence of the pandemic, and I see solutions being utilized that could also be very useful for the long term.

In addition to changes to how hearings work, courts have also reconsidered how filing paperwork happens. Just to give one example, what if we could relax notary requirements for people who don’t have easy access to notaries, and instead ask them to submit a statement that says, “Under penalty of perjury, everything I’ve said in this statement is true.”

What do you think the appetite is for this kind of longer-term change? 

It’s hard to say at this point. There are many reasons why states have not pursued major innovations, including a lack of resources to do so. But, that’s not to say that states aren’t doing innovative things. For example, Utah—a state I’ve been researching—is piloting a system of online dispute resolution for small claims cases, and recently opened up its legal market so that non-lawyers (Licensed Paralegal Practitioners) can provide limited forms of services in certain areas of law. I think a moment like this is really important because it allows courts to take stock of how they’ve been doing things and ask themselves if changes are possible.

What are you teaching this semester? Are you incorporating this current moment into your teaching?

This spring I’m teaching American Government & Politics and Judicial Decision-Making. In the latter class, the students are working on grant proposals for their own projects related to what judges do. It’s nice to see this spectrum of interest among the students ranging from the U.S. Supreme Court all the way down to a municipal docket. Seeing my students’ proposals was a bit of an inspiration to light a fire under my office chair to write my own proposal to the NSF!

In my American Government & Politics class, we’ve been talking about the connections between federalism and the coronavirus. We see a pattern of state reactions to what’s happening nationally. To say the very least, this is an unusual moment that is providing these really wacky examples of national-state relations. The pandemic has allowed us to test some of the theories we’re learning about in the abstract by examining current events.

Dolan Studies Impact of COVID-19 on Public Attitudes Toward Globalization

Lindsay Dolan

Lindsay Dolan

Assistant Professor of Government Lindsay Dolan specializes in international political economy and comparative politics in developing countries. Her research and teaching interests include international organizations, foreign aid, and development. Together with her co-author Quynh Nguyen of Australian National University, she has been studying how COVID-19 is affecting public attitudes toward globalization.

President Trump recently announced that he is suspending U.S. funding for the World Health Organization (WHO). Can you briefly explain the role of the WHO, particularly during a global health crisis, and what will be the implications of the U.S. cutting funding? Which countries or populations will be most affected?

The World Health Organization (WHO), like many international organizations, exists to provide information and coordinate among its 194 member states. Although it works on a host of global health issues, pandemic preparedness is an important part of its mandate. Its role during such a crisis is to collect and disseminate valuable information on the number of cases, provide scientific and technical information to inform government responses, and to establish a forum for coordination among governments.

Wesleyan Establishes New Bachelor of Liberal Studies Degree

CPE

Incarcerated students enrolled in Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education will be able to earn the newly-established Bachelor of Liberal Studies degree.

Wesleyan announced that it will now offer a part-time, non-residential undergraduate degree, the Bachelor of Liberal Studies (BLS). This provides a flexible, affordable path to earning a bachelor’s degree for students who meet Wesleyan’s admission standards but are unable to commit to living on campus for a variety of reasons.

The Office of Continuing Studies and the BLS Faculty Governing Board announced the BLS degree in an email to faculty and staff on April 9. Staff, as well as spouses and domestic partners of faculty and staff, who are interested in earning a bachelor’s degree, are encouraged to apply. The Human Resources website contains information on tuition benefits for eligible employees, spouses, and domestic partners.

The program is open to the general public and may be an attractive option for adult learners who hold a job or have family responsibilities. BLS students take courses on a per-credit basis, and normal completion time for the degree is within six years of matriculation.

In addition, the New England Commission on Higher Education (NECHE), Wesleyan’s accrediting body, has approved the establishment of additional instructional locations at Cheshire and York correctional institutions, so that incarcerated students enrolled in Wesleyan’s Center for Prison Education (CPE) will have an opportunity to earn BLS degrees.

“It’s been such an honor to be a part of the development of the BLS program at Wesleyan,” said Nicole Stanton, incoming provost and a member of the BLS faculty governing board. “With the approval of this new initiative, we will be able to make a Wesleyan education accessible to many more people, expand the critical work of our Center for Prison Education, and deepen our ties to our communities.”

Roth ’78, Tanaka ’00 Outline Pandemic’s Financial Impact on Wesleyan

budget on zoom

At top, Wesleyan President Michael Roth ’78, and Andy Tanaka ’00, senior vice president and chief administrative officer and treasurer, spoke to Wesleyan faculty and staff over Zoom on April 21. They explained the University’s financial burden due to the COVID-19 pandemic and answered questions from employees.

In an April 16 campus email, Wesleyan President Michael Roth ’78 outlined the cost of the current COVID-19 pandemic to the University to be between $11-12 million for the current fiscal year. On April 21, Roth and Senior Vice President, Chief Administrative Officer, and Treasurer Andy Tanaka ’00 held a virtual All-Staff Community Forum to further discuss the pandemic’s impact on Wesleyan’s finances and take questions from the community.

In his initial message, Roth wrote that the estimated loss is driven by “the cost of important measures like reimbursing students for prorated portions of their residential and comprehensive fees, emergency support for student travel to and from campus, funding lost wages for work study, and necessary investments in creating the best distance learning environment possible—all vital to the health and safety of our educational community.” He noted, “It does not account for the negative effects on other areas of the budget like fundraising, endowment returns and recruitment and yield.”

Due to past fiscal prudence and the generosity of parents, alumni, and friends of the University, Wesleyan is well-positioned to “weather the pandemic’s initial impact,” Roth wrote. “But because we don’t know how long it will last, we need now to prepare for the longer term by finding ways to offset lower revenue expectations without sacrificing the quality of the education.”

Roth described steps the administration is taking to mitigate the financial impact, explaining that he has asked all members of the President’s Cabinet to reduce expenditures in their areas by at least 10 percent for fiscal year 2021. In addition, Wesleyan will freeze compensation and non-faculty hiring, and will halt non-essential facilities projects. This includes pausing the start of construction on the Public Affairs Center (PAC) for a few months, which had been planned to start this summer.

Wesleyan Establishes College of Education Studies

Students at Wesleyan have long been interested in studying educational practice and policy, and have been committed to working with local schools and children through a wide variety of programs. Here, Emma Distler '19 plays an interactive reading and counting game with a four-year-old through Kindergarten Kickstart, a research-based, high-impact, low-cost innovative and nurturing preschool program organized by Anna Shusterman and her students every summer.

Students at Wesleyan have long been interested in studying educational practice and policy, and have been committed to working with local schools and children through a wide variety of programs. Here, Emma Distler ’19 plays an interactive reading and counting game with a 4-year-old through Kindergarten Kickstart, a research-based, high-impact, low-cost innovative and nurturing preschool program organized by Anna Shusterman and her students every summer.

Wesleyan has announced the establishment of a College of Education Studies, along with a new linked major in Education Studies.

Rooted in a liberal arts framework, the new College will foster interdisciplinary scholarship of education studies that is connected to practice and policy. It is an opportunity for Wesleyan to integrate serious scholarship with the University’s social justice mission, according to Associate Professors of Psychology Anna Shusterman and Steve Stemler, the co-chairs of the newly formed College.

A proposal to establish the College was unanimously endorsed by the Educational Policy Committee (EPC) earlier this year, and was approved by a vote of the full faculty on April 14.

Stemler: Schools’ Mission Statements Can Guide Educators, Homeschooling Parents Amid Social Distancing

Steve Stemler

Steve Stemler

Steve Stemler, associate professor of psychology and co-coordinator of education studies, has spent two decades systematically studying the purposes of school. He is the co-author, together with Dr. Damian Bebell, of The School Mission Statement and maintains the web resource purposeofschool.com. He is the author of an op-ed recently published in The Hartford Courant that provides advice for parents who are now educating their children at home due to coronavirus-related school closures.

You’ve done a good deal of research on the purpose of school, a topic on the minds of many parents these days as they’re getting an up-close look at their children’s daily school experiences. Can you tell us how you went about studying the purpose of school? 

One of the main techniques I use to study school purpose involves systematically analyzing and coding the content of school mission statements. School mission statements have a couple of advantages. First, they are the one common denominator that all schools share. In order to be accredited, schools are required to have a mission statement, so that provides a very nice common element. In addition, they are typically short statements that are meant as public documents that communicate the fundamental values of the school. I have also conducted survey, focus group, and interview research on the dimensions of schooling that people find important.

Wesleyan in the News

NewsWesleyan in the News

1. CNN: “How Coronavirus Has Reshaped Democratic Plans for 2020”

This article on how Democrats are politicizing the government’s response to the coronavirus crisis features research by the Wesleyan Media Project, which found that this past month has seen a huge drop in campaign advertising overall. “The messaging and the attacks that we’ve seen on [coronavirus] do feel louder … in part because there are fewer messages overall,” said Erika Franklin Fowler, associate professor of government, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. She notes that health care was emerging as a top issue in 2020 advertising for Democrats even before the pandemic began, so “it’s not surprising that Democrats appear poised to focus on the pandemic and the Trump administration’s response to it as part of their larger strategy to hit Trump and Republicans on health care.”

Plous: Learning from Social Psychology at a Time of Crisis

Scott Plous

Scott Plous

Professor of Psychology Scott Plous is a social psychologist whose research focuses on prejudice and discrimination, decision-making, and ethical issues relating to animals and the environment. He has a long-standing interest in web-based research and teaching, and has taught a Social Psychology massive open online course (MOOC) on the Coursera platform since July 2013. We spoke to him about what social psychology can teach us in these challenging times.

What are you teaching this semester, and how have you adapted your course for distance learning?

I’m teaching an advanced seminar on the Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination. Because the class has only 15 students, it’s been relatively easy to teach online using Zoom. I simply tile the full class in gallery view so I can see everybody, and all the students can see each other as well. I’m able to play videos, share PowerPoint slides and PDF documents, and even hold pop quizzes. Zoom also allows us to hold breakout sessions, and I can jump between several small groups of students as they have conversations. I’ve found that Wesleyan students are incredibly generous and forgiving if there’s a technical glitch or a little bit of a learning curve. They’ve been tremendous good sports, and we’re finding our way together.

Dancey on the Government’s Response to the Coronavirus Crisis

Logan Dancey

Logan Dancey

Associate Professor of Government Logan Dancey’s research and teaching interests include the United States Congress, campaigns and elections, and public opinion. We spoke to him about the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

As a scholar of legislative decision-making, can you describe how the workings of the United States Congress look different during a time of crisis?

It’s still early, but the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic shows that even this gridlocked and polarized Congress—which doesn’t seem to accomplish much in normal times—is still fairly quick to respond to crises. We’ve seen large bipartisan majorities agree on fairly large-scale responses to the pandemic. I think that’s to be expected given the magnitude of the problem, as well as the incentives that members of Congress have to try to solve problems as they arise. When crises like this are forced onto Congress’s agenda and they have no choice but to act, it can break down those partisan and ideological divisions that seem so strong during normal times, though the legislative outcomes may not be perfect or satisfy everyone.

Aalgaard: COVID-Related Incidents Part of a Long “Historical Arc of Anti-Asian Racism”

Scott Aalgaard

Scott Aalgaard

Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies Scott Aalgaard studies modern and contemporary Japan, including the experiences of Japanese-Americans during World War II, when approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent were forced into internment camps. We spoke to him about the echoes of that history in the surge in racist incidents against Asian-Americans since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Professor Aalgaard, as we think about the increase in racist acts against people of Asian descent in the United States today, can you please offer a brief history of racism faced by Asian-Americans?

The first thing that I want to argue is that we can’t understand either the Japanese internment during the Pacific War or the present crisis with racism surrounding the coronavirus as exceptions. Racism is very much the norm instead of the exception in this country and others. It’s also critical to understand that racism isn’t just about vilifying the other, it’s about solidifying a sense of a pure self. In the North American context, that sense of self is understood as white. This is an argument that Ta-Nehisi Coates makes in his writings about how the construct of whiteness itself was created by positively contrasting it against blackness at the time of slavery.

Cohan: Human Behavior Affects Virus Evolution

Frederick Cohan

Frederick Cohan

Frederick Cohan, the Huffington Foundation Professor in the College of the Environment, professor of biology, is a microbial ecologist whose course “Global Change and Infectious Disease” examines how human disturbance of the environment contributes to infectious disease outbreaks. He also researches the origins of diversity among both bacteria and viruses.

In early February, as the novel coronavirus was beginning to spread, Cohan wrote an article in The Conversation, co-authored with PhD candidate Kathleen Sagarin and Kelly Mei ’20, titled, “A Clue to Stopping Coronavirus: Knowing How Viruses Adapt From Animals to Humans.”

Cohan also was interviewed recently by The Wesleyan Argus about the biology of the coronavirus.

You teach a course on Global Change and Infectious Disease, which looks at how human disturbance of the environment can contribute to infectious disease outbreaks like the one we’re now living through. Can you give us a brief introduction to the course?

I teach this course every year or two, and there are usually over 170 students enrolled. I’m also in the middle of writing a book based on the course content. We talk about five categories of environmental disturbance that humans are creating or have created in the past that bring new diseases to us or exacerbate existing ones. The categories are: demand for food (hunting and agriculture), demand for land (living at high density), demand for travel, demand for energy, and demand for health care (including antibiotics).

McGuire Studies the Relationship Between Democracy and Public Health

James McGuire

Professor of Government James McGuire is a political scientist with expertise in the association between democracy and public health.

You study the relationship between democracy and population health. Does the literature find that democracy is good for population health?

As a political scientist I’ve long been interested in democracy, and especially in its possible impact on other aspects of well-being. Many other political scientists have studied democracy’s impact on economic growth and income inequality. My interest has been in democracy’s impact on the risk of early death, and particularly on child mortality in developing countries. For Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, whose capabilities approach I endorse, the end of human development is to enable each of us to lead a thoughtfully chosen life. To live the life one has reason to choose, however, one has to be alive.

For my forthcoming book Democracy and Population Health, I reviewed more than 200 quantitative studies of the association between the two phenomena. On balance, these studies find that democracy is usually, but not invariably, beneficial for population health. One can certainly dredge up examples of authoritarian countries that have done well. China, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba have reduced infant mortality quite steeply over the past 30 years, but for every such case there is a North Korea, Venezuela, or Zimbabwe—authoritarian countries where infant mortality has declined only at a glacial pace.