The University of Texas System announced Thursday that it would shutter its pioneering UT TeleCampus,  laying off 23 employees and reconfiguring the online education entity into a smaller operation within the system's central office.
You'd be forgiven for not having noticed that rather stunning development, though, if you glanced only casually at the university press release announcing the news. Its headline was "UT Institutions Use Distance Education to Teach More Students, Improve Graduation Rates," and the news release focused on how the university's various campuses had developed their own distance education expertise that, with support from the as-yet-to-be-defined smaller office, would be allowed to flower.
"Over the last 12 years, the TeleCampus has been successful in helping the campuses develop and administer online courses," said Anthony de Bruyn, director of public affairs for the Texas system. "As a result, their mission is complete."
The idea that online education at the University of Texas (or at least some of its campuses) has developed to the point that a centralized driver like the UT TeleCampus is no longer necessary is certainly feasible, said Richard Garrett, who analyzes online learning for Eduventures, a research and consulting firm.
In many ways, such a change -- which Garrett characterized as the first of its kind -- would be evidence of maturation, and a logical evolution, he said. "It's reasonable to begin to expect structural changes like this, where the more successful that online becomes, the less it makes sense to have separate structures to support it," said Garrett.
Indeed, that is largely how Texas officials portray the TeleCampus, which Russ Poulin, associate director of WCET, a cooperative focused on the use of technology in higher education, described as "a leader and exemplar for many other consortia in terms of some of the services they were offering."
Michael K. Moore, senior vice provost at the university's Arlington campus, said that the TeleCampus played a huge role in stimulating the embrace and use of distance education by several of the system's campuses, including his own (though Arlington started its own online program in 1997, a year before the launch of the TeleCampus). Enrollments through the TeleCampus  have risen steadily from 5,688 in 2001-2 to 10,813 in 2005-6 to 16,062 in 2008-9.
But "at this point, many of the campuses have developed their own capacity to develop courses," in many ways creating redundancy with the separate online operation, Moore said. The TeleCampus now administers 250 online courses, while UT's campuses themselves administer 2,400, de Bruyn said.
Redundancy that may be merely undesirable in good times can become completely unacceptable when budgets tighten -- and it seems clear that money played a role in the TeleCampus's hastened demise, despite the absence of any mention of money (let alone the layoffs) in the university's public statements about Thursday's decision.
The TeleCampus has long funded its operations  through a mix of fees (based on enrollments) from the campuses that used its services and an annual subsidy from the UT System's Available University Fund; in the 2008 fiscal year, it received about $1.9 million from the central fund, roughly $800,000 from institutional fees, and $270,000 in other revenue. About two years ago, system officials told the TeleCampus that it would have to wean itself from the Available University Fund money by 2012, and after closing the gap somewhat through budget cuts in 2009, the TeleCampus crafted a plan to significantly increase what it charged its campus users.
That proposal led campuses like Arlington to reconsider the value of what they were getting from what Moore semi-jokingly called the "tax" they pay to the TeleCampus. Arlington -- with UT-Permian Basin, one of the two heaviest deliverers of online education -- would have seen its annual payment rise from about $140,000 to more than $500,000, he said. "In our case, that was causing us to reconsider our level of involvement" in the TeleCampus, he said. "It started to be a question of whether we could do it ourselves more efficiently."
Like several people interviewed for this article, Moore said that he was taken by surprise by Thursday's announcement; he, like others, was under the impression that officials with the TeleCampus would have more time to develop a viable way to make up for the full evaporation, in 2012, of the system's financial subsidy.
It's not clear exactly what happened to speed up the university's timeline; Gov. Rick Perry's February mandate that the UT System and other state agencies plan to return 5 percent of their state funds  for the current biennium may well have played a role.
Officials affiliated with the TeleCampus could not be reached for comment, although one confirmed (as de Bruyn did) that all 23 of its employees would be laid off as of Aug. 31, the end of the system's fiscal year. De Bruyn acknowledged that there was an "efficiency aspect" of the decision to shutter the TeleCampus, in addition to the more upbeat reasons cited in the news release, but he said an estimate of the projected savings from replacing the organization with a smaller office in the central administration "is not firm yet."
Moore of UT-Arlington said he too believed that his campus would probably see some savings through elimination of "redundancy"; some of the fees it pays to the TeleCampus, for instance, cover Blackboard licenses that Arlington itself has, too.
But he also acknowledged that "there are going to be some challenges" because some of the services that the TeleCampus provides to campuses like Arlington will be difficult and expensive to replicate. The online campus, for instance, ensures that students from one campus can enroll in another's distance programs without any difficulties with financial aid or other administrative issues. While a small staff in the system office might be able to smooth over those and other problems in the few months before the TeleCampus officials disappears, Moore said, "there's a lot of heavy lifting to be done."
Not until UT establishes a new structure that fills the roles that the TeleCampus played -- or until the university fails to do so -- will it be fully clear whether the decision to kill off the separate unit was well-timed or premature, said Garrett of Eduventures.
"Moving from a centralized model to a decentralized model may be the logical outcome of a successful organization like the UT TeleCampus, making it a victim of its own success," he said. "But you can't move from a centralized to a decentralized model without due attention to what that actually means -- making sure that there's coordination among the campuses, that there's a continuing focus on improvement, that there continues to be encouragement to the campuses. Those kinds of things don't just happen naturally, and just as much care and attention needs to be given to this transition" as was given to building the TeleCampus in the first place if Texas is going to build on its legacy, Garrett said.
He added: "The question we can't answer yet is whether the timing is right because the TeleCampus has truly run its course, or is it primarily a need to cut costs now and we'll see over time whether enough thought has been given to making a new system successful."