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Private Conversations

Private Conversations
February 26, 2009

Tension is mounting at the University of Toledo, where administrators are exploring a partnership with a private company known for churning out quick and inexpensive degrees.

Toledo officials are considering a deal with Higher Ed Holdings, a Texas-based company that would help deliver online masters-level education courses to students in exchange for a share of tuition revenues. The company, founded by Dallas entrepreneur Randy Best, already has a similar arrangement with Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.

The potential partnership with a for-profit company comes at a time when faculty in the Judith Herb College of Education are increasingly skittish about the administration’s apparent affection for the private sector. Those concerns were stoked in part by the circulation of a letter, obtained by Inside Higher Ed, in which the university’s president outlined the parameters for finding a new interim dean to replace Thomas Switzer, who is retiring. In the Jan. 27 letter, President Lloyd Jacobs told his provost that a “business orientation” – not a background in education – was essential.

“I strongly suggest a person outside the JHCOE: indeed, a person outside the ‘educational establishment,’ ” wrote Jacobs, who is a medical doctor. “I have some ideas I would like to share with you.”

Efforts to reach Higher Ed Holdings Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Gregory Stone, an associate professor of research and measurement, said he’s worried about the implications of the partnership with the company, as well as the broader notion of running a public university like a private corporation. “The problem is education can’t be entirely run as a business,” he said. “It’s not as clear cut as making widgets and selling them, and unfortunately the notion of quantity over quality within the business world seems to be paramount.”

Details of the potential partnership with Higher Ed Holdings are still sparse, but Provost Rosemary Haggett said Wednesday that Toledo is not looking to outsource curriculum development.

“They would be our degree programs taught by our faculty members,” she said. “Where HEH comes in is they would provide a distance learning platform.... This is a way to take these [programs] to scale, to reach a large number of individuals in the state.”

“What’s important to us is to maintain the high quality of our programs,” she added. “These remain our degree programs.”

Under the roughly outlined agreement, Toledo faculty would continue to teach online courses through video lectures, but students would be assisted by “coaches” employed by Higher Ed Holdings. Toledo faculty say they’re unsure what the credentials of the “coaches” would be, and that’s a source of discomfort.

“They would be hired by HEH, [but] we would have the opportunity to decide whether or not the coaches were adequate,” Haggett said. “We have the opportunity to say ‘No, this isn’t working.’ ”

“The way I’ve thought about these coaches is they are sort of like graduate students, which we use in our face-to-face classes all the time,” she added.

The American College of Education, a subsidiary of Higher Education Holdings, LLC, describes the coach as “the primary contact person for students’ concerns and questions.” Furthermore, the coach is charged with evaluating students’ performance and participation after “training by faculty.” The professor, on the other hand, has the responsibility of maintaining course quality and serving as the “role model for students as well as the professor of academic record.”

The arrangement, as it’s been described, stands to undermine quality, according to one faculty member who asked not to be identified.

“If I’m a talking head on video, I would have very limited contact with my students,” the faculty member said. “The only people who would have contact would be ‘coaches,’ who have a masters degree – or not; who would understand – or would not understand – [course] content or the province that I have in my classes. It’s probably the worst case scenario, as far as I’m concerned.”

Cronyism Charges

Apart from concerns about the model, faculty say they’re troubled by the choice of Higher Ed Holdings for a number of other reasons. Best, who runs the company and served as a major fundraiser and contributor for George W. Bush, endured charges of cronyism when he received lucrative contracts connected with the No Child Left Behind program. Voyager, one of Best’s companies, sold for $380 million after its program for remedial students was employed in Reading First, a $6 billion federal initiative designed to help low-income schools meet federal NCLB requirements. Charges of conflicts of interest plagued Reading First, particularly after a federal report demonstrated that participants weren’t reading any better than those who didn’t participate.

“We’re concerned about the quality of our educational programs, given that this guy’s first company, [connected to] Reading First, was pretty questionable,” said one Toledo education faculty member, who asked not to be identified.

Best, who denied that his connections to Bush helped him win contracts, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Asked if she thought Best’s history was a source of legitimate concern, Haggett said “No. I do not.’”

A few moments later, however, Haggett sought to clarify her statement: “We intend to do due diligence about the company, certainly if we want to pursue anything with them.”

The decision to pursue anything, however, will happen “in a matter of weeks rather than months,” she said.

Toledo CFO sat on Company’s Board
It’s no coincidence, professors say, that Higher Ed Holdings ended up on Toledo’s radar. Scott Scarborough, the university’s chief financial officer, has a history with the company, and once sat on its board.

When Scarborough was executive vice president of administration at DePaul University, he helped broker a deal with the American College of Education. In a controversial agreement, the college acquired DePaul’s Barat College, and – more importantly – Barat’s accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

Toledo officials concede that Scarborough’s history with American College was what started the conversations with Higher Ed Holdings. They dispute, however, any notion of a conflict of interest.

“This company has no direct connection to our CFO,” Haggett said. “He happens to know who they are.”

In an e-mail to Jacobs, Toledo’s president, Scarborough sought to dampen any suggestion that he had a stake in the negotiations with the company now courting the university.

“I have no financial ties to Higher Ed Holdings,” he wrote in a Feb. 20 e-mail. “I do know the people who work at Higher Ed Holdings and admire the quality of their work.”

Scarborough went on to explain that while at DePaul he was the university’s representative on the company’s board of directors, but he vacated that position when he “left DePaul.” Scarborough, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, was questioned by faculty about his ties to Higher Ed Holdings even during the DePaul negotiations. In a statement provided to the Faculty Council in 2006, Scarborough said he was given $1,750 for attending four board meetings – a fact he said he disclosed in conflict of interest papers.

If DePaul faculty had a primary concern about Scarborough, however, it was his tendency to allow financial concerns to override academic priorities, according to Anne Clark Bartlett, who was president of the Faculty Council in 2006-07.

“Academic decisions were being driven by financial parameters and protested vigorously [by faculty],” said Bartlett, chair of DePaul’s Department of English. “That was definitely the historical view [of Scarborough].”

A business-driven approach to academics, however, appears to be in keeping with President Jacobs’ desires for the College of Education. In his letter last month to the provost, Jacobs stressed that a business focus was essential to the college’s future, and that the search for a permanent dean should be conducted with that goal in mind. While a search committee will be formed to help select candidates, Jacobs insisted that “we will not approve the selection of a [search] firm from the ‘educational establishment.’ "

“The search should emphasize the need of fresh thinking, creativity and new paradigms,” he wrote. “A business orientation is essential.”

 

 

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