IRVINE, Tex. -- Taken at face value, the Future of State Universities conference  that began here Thursday is like many other higher education meetings: "a bunch of important people listening to a bunch of somewhat more important people," as David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education and a participant in many such events, said about this one.
Some cosmetic differences were evident. While many of the speakers were familiar faces from the circuit of "think-y" higher ed conferences -- including Arizona State University's Michael Crow  (on his vision for a "new American university" ), U.S. Under Secretary of Education Martha J. Kanter, and the hot new face, Clayton Christensen, the innovation guru -- the profile of the presenters was quite a bit higher than usual. They included two former prime ministers (Britain's Tony Blair and Australia's John Howard), two former U.S. governors (Jeb Bush of Florida and Jim Hunt of North Carolina), Education Secretary Arne Duncan (via video), and Salman Khan, founder of Khan Academy.
The setting was serene (a Four Seasons resort and spa), the 400 or so invited participants each got an iPad to use for the duration of the meeting (but not to keep), and the production values were slicker and snazzier than is typical for a higher ed conference.
Those surface factors (especially the big-name speakers) were a major draw for the presidents and provosts, public higher education leaders, and other curiosity seekers who received coveted invitations to attend the meeting -- but they weren't what really distinguished the Future of State Universities conference from others on the topic.
The big difference was the sponsor: not the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, or the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, groups that often hold such meetings, but Academic Partnerships,  a for-profit company that works with public universities to build, market and support online academic programs.
Academic Partnerships (formerly known as Higher Ed Holdings) has helped some universities significantly expand their online footprints,  but its approach has sometimes been controversial -- and, in a small number of cases, challenged  and blocked.  The company is owned by the entrepreneur Randy Best, who also operates for-profit colleges in the United States (master's degrees through American College of Education ) and in seven Latin American countries (Whitney University System ).
The meeting's underlying thesis -- that as state funds erode, public colleges and universities must use technology to create more innovative and sustainable business models -- is oft stated, and many leaders of public higher education embrace it. But delivered by a messenger like Academic Partnerships, given its clear interest in promoting such a trend, the theme of the meeting produced skepticism on the part of many attendees -- although most said they came in with eyes open.
"A lot of us did" come to the meeting suspicious about the motivations of the sponsors, said Muriel Howard, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, who said she debated whether to come. She chose to, she said, because of the importance of the topic and the fact that public college leaders (to judge by, among other things, the views they expressed in Inside Higher Ed's survey of college presidents  last spring) seem to be recognizing the need to make better use of technology to deliver instruction.
'We Want Public Universities to Thrive'
In an interview, Best said that his company's goal for the meeting -- in consultation with Hunt and Bush -- was to "expose our public sector friends ... to the extraordinarily exciting thing that happens to be going on while we're all here": the transformation that technology is bringing about in society, and how it can help public colleges and universities continue to thrive in an environment in which states are gutting funding and families are getting fed up with ever-rising tuition prices. For-profit colleges have been the primary beneficiaries of the shift to online learning, Best said, and public universities should not cede that terrain.
He described the shift to more technology-driven instruction and online learning by public colleges as "inevitable," said he hoped the meeting (and others like it) would contribute to an environment that drives the shift "more rapidly than if we had not done this." By sponsoring the conference, he acknowledged, Academic Partnerships "wants to be identified with what is going to happen anyway."
"Just about every meeting has sponsors, and to put up money, sponsors have to have some reason to do it," he said. "We want public universities to thrive. If they win, we have to win, because we are tethered to them."
In the weeks leading up to the meeting, Academic Partnerships was fairly transparent about its role in underwriting it; its logo appeared on all communications promoting it, although Hunt and Bush were front and center as the "hosts." But the transparency did not apply universally. In a news release  Wednesday promoting Kanter's appearance at the conference, the U.S. Education Department described Hunt and Bush as hosting the event, but failed to mention Academic Partnerships.
And nowhere before or during the event was it acknowledged that Hunt is on the board of Academic Partnerships or that Bush -- whom Best describes as a "close friend" -- is on the advisory board of Whitney University System.
Quite a few attendees said they hadn't been fully aware of the company's role and potential self-interest in the meeting, but most conceded that they had been drawn by the speakers and hadn't paid much attention to the small print.
How much the Academic Partnerships connection concerned them varied. "This is an important conversation, and it's unfortunate that it's tainted by the implication that it's being done for commercial purposes," said a senior administrator at one major public research university, who asked not to be identified. "Any time a commercial organization underwrites an event, you have to have that skepticism."
Other participants said they had such skepticism about just about every meeting, since those put on by associations and other noncommercial groups have financial sponsors that the organizers want to please. For those people, the event would rise or fall based on its content -- and on that score, the reviews were generally positive.
Academic Partnerships promised attendees a non-solicitation policy at the conference, and the company was largely invisible at the meeting, apart from a few thank-yous from speakers.
Speakers like Crow and Kanter gave talks that were similar to those they have given in other settings, and their messages -- while generally supporting the theme that major change is necessary in higher education -- were not always consistent with the idea that online education is the answer (though Arizona State, where Crow is president, is an Academic Partnerships client). Kanter, for instance, promoted the open educational resources movement that is her personal mission, and that trend could, if taken to its logical extension, by making classroom materials free, obviate the need for providers like Academic Partnerships.
So, too, would Khan Academy,  which was described and displayed (to a rapt audience) by its founder Khan. He said the Google- and Microsoft-backed network of freely available video and other lessons for self-paced learning would eventually move toward a model where it would offer credentials of some kind.
Other presentations, like Michael Wesch' s entertaining talk (including his eye-opening videos ) about how today's students learn, drove home the idea that classroom instruction should take far better advantage of technology, but the Kansas State University anthropologist had little to say about online education itself.
Promotion From the Podium
Pro-distance education messages, however, were plentiful -- and some subtler than others. (Besides Hunt and Bush, several other speakers had ties to Academic Partnerships or Best, including Richard Ferguson, an Academic Partnerships vice president and former president of ACT, and Walter Bumphus of the American Association of Community Colleges, who worked for Voyager Learning Systems, which Best sold in 2005.)
While Tony Blair's most notable higher education accomplishment while prime minister was pushing to democratize access to higher education for Britons, his speech focused on how the country increased its recruitment of international students and the need for more technological innovation in instruction. "There is going to be no alternative but to try to reshape education, with distance learning being a major component," he said. (Blair and Australia's John Howard, who speaks today, have no ties to Academic Partnerships but were paid honorariums through the Washington Speakers Bureau, Best said.)
Bush and Hunt, in their duties as moderators, spoke frequently about the need for "new and sustainable models, with new revenue models, new delivery systems," as Bush put it.
And Hunt said that for public universities to "take the next big steps" in increasing access for their states' citizens, "when the money's not available," leaders will have to "realize that getting online education is much more affordable" and that "students like to get [their education] online." Some in the audience clearly bristled at statements like that, which they said struck them as oversimplifications if not outright misstatements.
Amid the voices promoting online learning as a potential savior for public higher education, there were none from faculty critics of distance learning or, perhaps not surprisingly, the larger number who question whether arrangements with private entities like Academic Partnerships are the right way for public institutions to go.
At the end of the first day, several attendees said that they had been generally impressed by the quality of the discussion, and that that overshadowed any qualms they might have had about the independence of the sponsors (especially given the lack of a "hard sell" that some feared -- at least on the first day). "I heard some really interesting and useful things today," said Longanecker of WICHE, "and that's certainly not true of every meeting."