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Startup University's Phantom Faculty

October 19, 2012

Cambridge Graduate University makes some bold claims, which is hardly rare for a startup. But it has gone further than usual with an ambitious list of faculty members, many of whom had never heard of the university.

At least two professors from Northeastern University were surprised to see their names on the list, since neither has any affiliation with the venture. They are among several who have asked the university’s president, Tim Howard, a former Northeastern professor, to remove their names.

Howard said the university created its website only a few months ago, and that the concept is still evolving. Yet last week it welcomed its first full cohort of students in Hong Kong, he said.

In response to scrutiny about the university’s assertions, Howard said attention from higher education institutions and the news media “validates the power of the CGU model.” He said he embraces the “review and critiques by all parties,” and that “CGU will continue to respond by improving and adapting its cutting edge and dynamic global campus model of graduate education.”

The university plans to blend online, synchronous coursework with on-site workshops that last 6-10 days, said Howard. It will offer master’s and doctoral degrees, as well as some professional certificates, in disciplines ranging from business to public health and education. The following promotional video describes the university's approach:

The academic offerings are geared toward mid-career students who want to make the leap to becoming a “21st-century leader,” according to the university. Workshops will be held in various international cities, like Geneva, Cape Town and Rio de Janeiro. The first such “intensive” retreat was held in Hong Kong last week, Howard said. The university’s website describes the immersions as taking place in “civilization epicenters at local universities, businesses, governmental offices and in the city’s finest resorts.”

Howard is a Florida-based lawyer who also holds a Ph.D. in law, policy and society from Northeastern. Until recently he was director of the law and policy doctoral program at the university's College of Professional Studies. Howard was active in Florida's tobacco litigation during the '90s, sometimes playing a controversial role.

As for his new venture, Howard said Cambridge Graduate's unique format makes it the “world’s first global campus university."

The University of Antarctica's Accreditor

Several experts said the university’s website includes more than a few red flags about whether it will be a legitimate operation. The university also appears to be attempting to tap into the buzz around MOOCs and free online learning, chiefly by listing Ivy League professors as faculty, even though those professors’ only contributions are free online lectures created for another, much different website.

The university’s model could work, said Alan Contreras, a former watchdog for Oregon’s Office of Degree Authorization. But only with proper licensing, accreditation and “genuine faculty” who review “genuine work” by students.

That does not appear to be the case with Cambridge Graduate, at least not yet, Contreras said, calling the university a “crude, ill-constructed and poorly conceived pursuit of raw money.”

The university’s accreditation appears problematic, said George Gollin, a physics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has a long track record studying unaccredited degree-granting institutions as a side interest.

Cambridge Graduate touts its accreditation with the International Accreditation Organization (IAO), a self-described “secondary” accrediting body that seeks to “recognize and accredit education providers on an international scale,” according to its website. The Texas-based accreditor said its seal of approval is not to be claimed as a primary accreditation, which is how Cambridge Graduate is using it.

Gollin questioned relying on the accreditor in any capacity. He cited bogus degree providers on IAO’s list of accredited institutions, including one with ties to a known degree mill operator. And Cambridge Graduate isn’t the only institution accredited by IAO that makes unsupported claims on its website.

For example, Gollin notes that one of IAO’s fully accredited institutions is the University of Antarctica (motto: “Big Continent, Big Opportunities”), which the accreditor recently removed from its website.

The University of Antarctica’s homepage includes a photograph of its “Administration Building,” which is actually a lightly doctored photograph of a former attraction at Walt Disney World’s Epcot theme park. The university’s website is elaborate and includes several entertaining sections, including photos of its alleged football team and “Snowman” mascot, as well as a guide to nightlife around the campus.

Accrediting the University of Antarctica should be a “one-strike-you’re-out disqualification,” Gollin said. And any institution that “describes its couplings with IAO as a positive attribute is not to be taken seriously.”

The accreditor did not respond to a request for an interview.

Howard said the university plans to eventually seek regional accreditation in the United States. It is also pursuing licenses to issue credentials in other countries. For now, however, the university is relying on IAO as its sole third-party verification.

“IAO is one of the few international accrediting organizations,” Howard said via e-mail, “and as CGU is a global campus organization, it is an appropriate body to have accreditation from.”

Faculty Stars

Alan Zaremba is listed as a faculty member on Cambridge Graduate’s website.

“I was surprised when I saw it,” said Zaremba, an associate professor of communication studies at Northeastern. He has no affiliation with the university. Likewise, Stephen Nathanson, a professor of philosophy at Northeastern, asked Howard to take his name down after seeing it on the website earlier this year.

“I told him that I was unhappy that my name was on there because I had not agreed to be on the faculty, whatever that means,” Nathanson said. His name has since been removed.

Cambridge Graduate has also erroneously described professors from institutions other than Northeastern as being on its faculty. The university listed several eye-catching luminaries as “digital lecture faculty” on its website, including Steven Pinker and Michael J. Sandel, both Harvard University professors, as well as Tamar Gendler of Yale University and Michio Kaku of the City University of New York's City College. Even Lawrence Summers made the list.

None of those academic heavyweights have offered their services to Cambridge Graduate. They do have one thing in common, however: they have all contributed content to the Floating University, a website offering freely available online lectures on “Great Big Ideas.” In fact, Cambridge Graduate’s list of digital lecture faculty until recently included all the contributors to the Floating University.

The Floating University’s creator is Big Think, a website of blogs, articles and videos by renowned intellectuals. Peter Hopkins, Big Think’s president and co-founder, was unaware of Cambridge Graduate and its list of faculty members when he was contacted by a reporter. Big Think’s lawyers subsequently sent Howard a letter asking him to take down the cross-referenced names and all Floating University material. The names have since been removed.

Big Think doesn’t claim that the creators of the Floating University content are faculty members, said Hopkins, and neither should anybody else, at least not based on those free lectures. And he has a problem with degree issuers trying to make money off of the content.

Hopkins said Big Think sent the letter to Cambridge Graduate to defend its contributors, in part so they don’t become skittish about creating free, web-based material.

“It’s a pretty bold misrepresentation,” Hopkins said of the university’s website.

‘The New Model’

Howard said the Floating University lectures were intended to be a supplement for Cambridge Graduate course material, which is still in development.

“These are digital lectures that we are using to subsidize the content,” he said, adding that the idea was “to make sure we have robust content.”

However, Howard said the university had erred in listing some professors as full faculty members, when they were to be described as “distinguished guest” faculty. Others were “incorrectly transposed by staff from other documents,” he said.

Some of the university’s listed faculty members are familiar with the project. And a few sound like they are fully behind it, at least in edited interviews that appear in promotional videos for the university.

“This is the new model,” Thomas H. Koenig, a professor of sociology at Northeastern, said in a video. “That’s where 21st-century education is going.”

Another faculty member, Bridget Stewart, who is a lecturer in nursing at Regis College, appeared in one of the promotional clips, which was apparently filmed at a faculty retreat held recently on Florida’s St. George Island.

“Being part of this new university is just a unique opportunity to really break the mold,” Stewart said. “And that’s what we need to do as leaders. We need to grow. We need to be on the cutting edge.”

Neither Stewart nor Koenig responded to requests for comment.

A few of the university’s faculty members were “cleared and were initially able to be listed as CGU faculty,” Howard said in an e-mail, “but subsequently requested to be withdrawn based on pressure received from their university.”

Nathanson has no idea why he was publicly described as a Cambridge Graduate faculty member. But he knew Howard at Northeastern, and “always thought well of him.”

Howard said the university currently enrolls students who hail from Saudi Arabia, India and West African nations. "These are people who are on their game and want to take it to the next level," he said.

Admissions are “highly selective and space is limited,” according to the university’s website. But Cambridge Graduate is currently accepting online applications on a rolling basis. The application fee of $300 can be submitted to a Bank of America branch in Tallahassee, which is also home to Howard’s law practice.

 

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