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Deal Stopped in Its Tracks

January 26, 2011

Ohio’s Cuyahoga Community College has suspended a plan to work with a Texas company to offer an online accounting degree program, after faculty raised concerns about the deal. The company, Academic Partnerships, provides distance education support to institutions for a share of tuition revenues.

It is not the first time an institution’s dealing with Academic Partnerships, formerly known as Higher Ed Holdings, has gotten pushback from faculty. In early 2009, University of Toledo professors protested the institution’s consideration of working with the private company to deliver online master's-level courses, arguing that doing so would commodify students and curriculum in a way that violated the university mission. Ultimately, faculty there managed to kill the deal.

Later that year, Arkansas State University faculty began openly questioning the value of their own institution’s deal with the company to offer online coursework in education; one even resigned from an academic committee to protest what he called the “scam.” Then came the revelation in late 2010 that Leslie Wyatt, former president of the Arkansas State system, was consulting for Academic Partnerships while still collecting a paycheck from Arkansas State, where he maintains faculty status.

A Different Kind of Deal

The deal between Academic Partnerships and Cuyahoga is smaller in scale than the company's arrangements with large four-year institutions like Arkansas State, the University of Texas at Arlington and Ohio University.

Pete Ross, Cuyahoga's vice president of enrollment management, explained that the 10-year agreement, which was signed last May, would let the college maintain control of curriculum and faculty while giving Academic Partnerships the responsibility of recruiting students from companies around the country to take the accounting degree program online.

“We made it clear that’s how we wanted to enter this, by keeping control of the academics,” said Ross. “Also, we’re controlling the offerings, so it can only get so large. We’re not looking to double our enrollment by having more students come from the outside or anything.”

Though Cuyahoga would keep all tuition from in-county students in this program, it would have to give 70 percent of tuition from out-of-county students to Academic Partnerships. Ross noted that the college would pilot two course offerings of 30 students to see if the model made financial sense, then expand it if deemed appropriate.

“This is an audience we couldn’t really afford to reach,” said Ross of out-of-state online students. “The idea behind this was to find a way to keep our revenue stream flowing. It’s not a survival technique, but looking ahead to the next two or three years, it’s prudent to look out for other revenue.”

The State of Ohio is currently facing an $8.5 billion budget deficit, Ross said, noting that higher education appears poised to take face further cuts to help make up for this giant shortfall. Cuyahoga already reaches about 10,000 students online -- about 80 percent from Ohio -- but Ross argued that making room to accommodate more from in and outside of the state could help the college locally.

“I mean, we wouldn’t be looking at a financial windfall here,” Ross said. “Out primary mission is to serve our county residents, but to do that we have to keep their tuition low by getting some outside revenue.”

Lack of Faculty Involvement

Faculty leaders focused their ire on the process through which Cuyahoga administrators engineered the deal, although they have concerns about Academic Partnerships's practices as well.

Edward Foley, business administration professor and president of the Cuyahoga chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which functions as a faculty union at the institution, said faculty representatives were not made aware of the deal with Academic Partnerships until last November, six months after it was signed. What's more, he said, it was never brought up during the three months of involved contract negotiations between college and union officials last summer. Foley said the union and faculty senate found out about the deal only after a colleague stumbled across promotional materials for the program on the college’s website.

“I’m embarrassed of our institution,” Foley said. “We have official mechanisms that we’ve negotiated to give us more opportunities to talk and communicate. But this was signed without our knowledge, and essentially hidden from faculty. This has contractual implications and there are so many academic questions. You just don’t commit yourself to a 10-year contract and not talk to faculty.”

Ross confirmed that faculty were not contacted prior to the college’s signing of the deal last May, but said that lack of consultation was appropriate given that administrators were hammering out the business end of the deal. Ross said faculty representatives were to have been brought in to discuss the academic side of the deal, after it was signed, but that such discussions were probably preempted by the union’s inadvertent discovery of the deal in November.

“In hindsight, it would have been better to do that,” said Ross of consulting with faculty before the deal was signed. “That would have made everything much smoother. Still, we really didn’t have the details on the academic side yet.… The contract was bare-bones ... and is essentially just a memorandum of understanding.”

Robert Jaskulski, history professor and AAUP representative for the college’s eastern campus, took a harder line than Foley on the deal. Jaskulski said he did not think faculty members would have approved the deal even if they had been consulted before it was signed. Not only does Jaskulski have concerns about Academic Partnerships’ methods of recruiting and their potential impact on course quality, but he also expressed skepticism regarding whether the deal could actually generate revenue for the institution, given the cost per student of online instruction.

No Go for Launch?

Though the deal has already been signed, Cuyahoga officials say they will not implement the online program until there is buy-in from faculty. Still, given the concerns expressed by some faculty members already, it is possible the program may never be implemented.

“If we don’t provide any courses or anything, then there’s no deal,” Ross said. “There’s no cancellation fee or anything, and there are no money exchanges if this doesn’t happen. It’ll just end.… Again, [faculty] are the ones who’ll have to teach this. We’re not going to do it if they don’t want to do it.”

Though both sides confirm that they have set no meetings to discuss the deal as of yet, administration and union officials say that would be the next step. Representatives from the Faculty Senate are also slated to sit in on the debate over the deal.

For its part, Academic Partnerships appears to consider the deal with Cuyahoga dead. Otherwise, company officials had no further comment about the debate at the Ohio community college.

“Some months ago, we had discussion with Tri-C leadership and did some test marketing on their behalf, but we did not reach an agreement on high demand programs to implement and mutually decided not to move forward,” Deborah Nugent, company treasurer and spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail.

 

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