When the University of Illinois first announced its plan to create a separate, for-profit online education arm called Global Campus in 2006, observers saw potential for a significant shift in a landscape dominated by profit-seeking companies and a few successful models at public universities. That sentiment lasted only as long as it took faculty leaders to get hold of the proposal, however, which they rejected for relying heavily on non-tenure-track instructors, among other reasons.
Eighteen months later, after a slow start for the online campus, some faculty may be coming around to the university administration's attempt to resurrect some of that initial blueprint, albeit in altered form.
As a result of a 2007 compromise with faculty members, Global Campus doesn't currently operate as a stand-alone entity. It partners with existing university departments on all academic offerings, and existing university faculty control course content. Partially for that reason, and without significant incentives to do so, many professors have been reluctant to lend their resources to the enterprise. Officials predicted enrollments of up to 10,000 online students within five years of the initial incarnation's launch, but so far, Global Campus has logged 121 students in its five programs.
Last week Joseph White, the university's president and a strong backer of the initiative from the beginning, proposed a return to one of the original goals for Global Campus: achieving separate accreditation, which the administration argues would allow it to more freely expand and adjust offerings to market needs, and to hire its own faculty.
Until now, growth has been "slow," conceded Chester S. Gardner, chief executive of Global Campus and special assistant to the president. Keeping courses affordable meant no real financial incentives for partnering departments, which fed into a sense of wariness at the perceived added workload of delivering an online course. Those realities "just didn’t allow us to make much progress" and led to the latest proposal to revamp the online initiative's structure, Gardner said.
Unlike the original proposal that drew the ire of professors, Global Campus would remain nonprofit and would work with existing, tenure-track faculty members. With its own accreditation, it would effectively become a fourth campus in the University of Illinois system, Gardner said.
"Under the current plan, the Global Campus would employ a few non-tenured clinical faculty to help develop and deliver the academic programs as well as utilize existing University of Illinois tenure-system and emeritus faculty in this role," he wrote in a separate e-mail. "In other words, all academic programs would be University of Illinois faculty-[led]. These faculty would be encouraged to teach in the program but in order to scale the delivery, Global Campus would also employ adjunct faculty to teach, as we currently do with the existing Global Campus programs."
Administrators originally conceived the online campus as an extension of the university's land-grant mission in the state and a way to significantly expand access to quality higher education. Although the biggest player in online education nationwide is the for-profit University of Phoenix, officials stressed that many distance learners still prefer to buy local, as it were. UMassOnline, for example, enrolls fewer than 30 percent of its students from out of state.
The University of Massachusetts program, which officials at Illinois studied, isn't separately accredited but still operates with considerable autonomy. It enrolls more than 20,000 students and has seen double-digit growth year over year. Essentially spinning off an academic unit to become an independently accredited entity isn't ordinary, even in the unpredictable world of online education. One of the few notable examples is the University of Maryland University College, which started after World War II and eventually shifted into a separate, online-only campus.
Obtaining accreditation “allows us to definitively look at what programs are in greatest need and develop them. And we can offer them at essentially our cost, that we don’t have to build in financial incentives which of course affects tuition," Gardner said. "So this gives us the freedom of looking at the market place, determining what are the programs that are most needed then looking forward immediately to develop those programs."
"It gives the entity additional coherence and focus and allows it to perhaps operate in a more entrepreneurial way or perhaps be more responsive to the market place, but at the same time obviously wanting to maintain a fundamental link back to the parent institution, a key to the brand," said Richard Garrett, senior research analyst at the consulting firm Eduventures' Online Higher Education Learning Collaborative.
Garrett, who noted that he was speaking in general terms since the University of Illinois is a client, added that the argument for separate accreditation holds that it's "still very much a campus of the university but somewhat more independent of one of the more existing campuses, sort of a sensible halfway house, the best of both worlds, if you like." Still, he said there's no general trend toward such accreditation, although there "may be particular circumstances where it does make more sense."
When administrators were mulling over the form UMassOnline was taking, for example, they considered accrediting it as a stand-alone unit. "Among the advantages of creating a distinct organizational entity that would be separately accredited are better ability to measure business performance, potentially more control over what online academic programs are developed and delivered, and fuller control over the cost structure (for example, over the compensation that faculty will be paid to develop and teach online courses)," David J. Gray, UMassOnline's CEO, said in an e-mail.
"The disadvantages include creating a sense of competition within the university or university system via the creation of a new separate entity, including the faculty distrust that can accompany that, and the difficulties of creating synergies within the preexisting university structure."
But, like the proposed changes to Global Campus, UMassOnline relies on the existing campus resources. "All parts of the UMass system have been the beneficiaries," he said. "A wholly separate entity was unnecessary for us and I believe would have proven counterproductive to our successful development and growth in the online arena."
The View From the Faculty
Gardner and others believe there's a much better chance of the plan passing muster with faculty this time around, especially since the for-profit proposal is off the table and the program has been around long enough to alleviate concerns over course quality. But, as Gray observed, there's the possibility that a newly independent Global Campus could threaten the university's existing online programs at its three brick-and-mortar campuses.
"The competition aspect is particularly important if the institution is already operating online courses and programs," Gray said.
So far, it hasn't been a problem in part because of the sheer difference in number: the award-winning Springfield campus's online programs enroll about 1,200 students -- about a quarter of its total student population -- in liberal arts programs that have received support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Global Campus's programs will be more directed toward industries in need of trained graduates.
Pat Langley, chair of the Campus Senate at the University of Illinois at Springfield and a critic of Global Campus when it was first introduced, noted that most of the faculty have decided not to partner with the new online programs in part because of a lack of comfort with the model. "If they become their own institution, one of the key questions is, Who are they going to hire to deliver all these programs? There aren't a ton of answers here yet," she said.
Faculty at the Springfield campus support the vision of broadening access to education, Langley added, but there were concerns about a larger program marking online programs as "inferior." Springfield offers degree completion programs with core arts and humanities courses online, with a level of quality, she said, that derives directly from their on-campus sources.
Gardner said the president has already met with faculty leaders, whose advice he will present to the Board of Trustees in November. That leaves less than two months for faculty groups to study the plan, which still lacks details, and consider whether to oppose it publicly.
Following approval from the Illinois Board of Higher Education, he continued, Global Campus will begin the accreditation process with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. Normally, that would take four to six years, he said, but since Global Campus is already operating, he expects to be able to negotiate accreditation within two or three years. Students who earn degrees until that time would have the option to receive diplomas from one of the residential campuses.
"I think a lot of people acknowledge that the current model isn't producing the kind and variety of programs that we all envisioned when the Global Campus started," said Nick Burbules, chairman of the Urbana-Champaign Faculty Senate who also serves on the Global Campus Academic Council. "People I talk with are willing to consider a different model."
Burbules said the fact that Global Campus would remain a partnership with existing faculty and that the content would originate from the university "broadly reassures people," and said the accreditation may not in itself be a "deal breaker." In general, he said that faculty will continue to be concerned about program quality -- and some, such as Elliot Kaufman, secretary of the Chicago Faculty Senate, think accreditation could actually ensure that it remains high.
"Personally I don't think seeking accreditation is a bad thing. It demands rigor and excellence [and] provides oversight and all of that good stuff. So, in essence, it's certainly not going to allow the Global Campus to cut any corners."