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I’ve been thinking and reading a lot about the Purdue/Kaplan purchase, and I’m still confused.

The short version is that Purdue, a respected public university in Indiana, bought Kaplan University, a mostly online for-profit college. The idea on Purdue’s side, as near as I can tell, is to get a ready-made boost in online market share at minimal cost; if it goes well, it may even wind up turning a profit that will bolster Purdue’s traditional campus operations. On Kaplan’s side, it’s a way to get academic legitimacy, and to escape the regulatory scrutiny to which for-profits are subjected. But it’s still a sort of for-profit, since it will get a cut of any revenues above expenses (if only there were a word for that…) after a few years.

The new hybrid institution doesn’t have a name yet, and we don’t yet know about its accreditation, whether it will be unionized, how it will articulate with Purdue’s other offerings, the standing of its faculty, and the like. (As far as names go, I hope it follows in the tradition of IUPUI, which is pronounced Ooey Pooey, and goes with something like KUPUI - Kooey Pooey. Just try saying that without smiling.) The deal came as a surprise to Purdue faculty and staff, which may portend relative autonomy for the new institution.  Unless it doesn’t.

Others are addressing whether Kooey Pooey will be able to borrow the academic respect given to the Purdue name, or whether it will cheapen it. I’m eagerly awaiting Tressie McMillan Cottom’s take on it, since it seems like a paradigm case of Lower Ed.

I’m stuck on the mission.

Kooey Pooey will be a “public benefit corporation,” meaning a for-profit that also has a social mission baked into its charter. It will be vocational, sort of, and transfer-focused, sort of. It will be online, mostly, but with ties to a campus. It will be non-profit, yet for-profit, with a social mission, but no public money, but with an in-state discount. 

Got all that?

To really make your head hurt, imagine questions about whether foundation-supported scholarships can cover study there. Can tax-deductible donations go to support a public benefit corporation? I get tired just thinking about it. And once you’ve let legislators off the hook for state support, I wouldn’t expect them to stop at the subsidiary.

It just seems like an impossibly complicated mission. And Purdue is already complicated.

One of the luxuries of the community college sector -- and we don’t have many -- is clarity of mission. Community colleges teach. Period. They’re non-profit, publicly supported (to a decreasing extent, but still), and with a clear mission. Even the “comprehensive” ones really only have two missions: “workforce” and transfer. And some of us argue repeatedly that that’s really only one mission, since many jobs require bachelor’s degrees. Transfer IS workforce, thank you very much. Whether the program is ESL, Adult Basic Ed, Welding, Nursing, or Liberal Arts, the idea is to teach well and prepare students for the next step. That’s all. 

Although some have strong athletic traditions, I’ve never seen a community college with anything close to the sports mania of Division 1. Some faculty do research -- these are natural settings for the scholarship of teaching and learning -- but it’s not at the core of what we do, and I’ve never seen anyone fired for not doing it. Some have dorms, but they’re really not about the idyllic student experience on a quad. When push comes to shove, as it often does, community colleges are about teaching. That’s the core.

Research universities are more complicated. They teach, but they pay the bills and gain status through research, and they’re often known for athletics.  Now, in Purdue’s case, add a sorta/kinda non-profit that skims off the top, that’s sorta kinda for state residents but entirely self supporting, that sorta kinda comes with a stigma that the name may or may not be able to whitewash,  And that’s before getting into questions of unions, accreditation, transfer, and the rest.

Mission matters when resources get tight; it helps you prioritize. But when your mission statement starts to resemble a Jackson Pollock painting, it loses that function.  Imagine limited resources. (It’s a stretch, I know, but bear with me.) Do you spend more on the football team, a new science lab, tutoring, or Kooey Pooey? How do you decide?  And given a really ambiguous mission, how do you judge the success of Kooey Pooey? Imagine you have to make cuts. Do you cut research funding to prop up Kooey Pooey?  Do you cut Kooey Pooey to spare the tutoring center?  How do you decide? And do you solicit donations to support the growth of what amounts to a for-profit subsidiary?

Mitch Daniels is a smart guy. I’m sure he’s thought about most or all of this. But he hasn’t said enough to clarify it, and I remain confused. Assuming Kooey Pooey comes to fruition, what’s its mission?  Until that’s clear, I’m not sure there’s much else to say.

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