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What Doomed Global Campus?

September 3, 2009

By now, the University of Illinois Global Campus — an exclusively online branch of the Illinois system designed to offer high-demand degree programs to non-residential students — was supposed to be well on its to way to enrolling 9,000 students by 2012, and 70,000 by 2018. It was going to be a giant step into the 21st Century; proof that a traditional public university can use Web-only courses to educate non-traditional students on a large scale. It was also going to be a cash cow.

Instead, it’s kaput. The university system's board voted in May to phase out the embattled project by New Year’s, rolling its remaining 500-odd students into existing programs in the system that offer online courses. Last week it laid off most of its staff. Over its two-year lifespan, the Global Campus project borrowed about $7 million from the university, and awarded several dozen degrees. “It’s over,” former Global Campus CEO Chester S. Gardner said wearily when contacted by Inside Higher Ed. “I wish people would just leave it alone.”

With online education becoming mainstream at public universities, many have no doubt looked to the demise of the University of Illinois Global Campus as a teachable moment. Most public institutions — not least Illinois — have online degree-completion programs. But nearly all exist at the level of departments and colleges on individual campuses.

Global Campus was conceived as a separately accredited entity that would eventually enroll as many students as the other University of Illinois campuses combined. It was meant to be a win-win: the university dramatically expands access to its vast resources and well-regarded degrees, while generating tons of revenue à la University of Phoenix Online. According to Nicholas C. Burbules, an educational policy professor on the Urbana-Champaign campus who said he was involved in the discussions of the project at every stage, officials were billing Global Campus internally as the best of both worlds: the development model of a private, for-profit model plus the academic clout of an established public university.

So, what happened?

Gardner, who will return to professorial duties in the engineering department at Urbana-Champaign, said there were a number of contributing factors, not least of which was increasing competition for online students, which pitted Global Campus against dozens of low-cost, Web-based operations as it sought to grow enrollment and recoup its initial investment. “We were entering a market that was simply becoming more competitive all the time,” said Terry Bodenhorn, a history professor at the Springfield campus who was then serving as the chair of the system-wide University Senates Conference.

The Global Campus, however, was not just another well-meaning Web start-up trying to swim with the sharks; it came armed with the University of Illinois brand and the century and a half of excellence that brand represents. That, of course, was the point: to deliver that excellence to the masses, and leverage that brand to cut a profitable slice of the online market — then reinvest those profits to strengthen the brand.

But others worried that rather than strengthening the university’s brand, Global Campus would dilute it. Burbules, who served as chair of the faculty senate at Urbana-Champaign during most of the project’s saga, said many professors worried that without faculty oversight, Global Campus would be handing out degrees that carried the University of Illinois seal but did not reflect its standards. He recounted an incident wherein a professor at the Chicago campus had proposed a course to the psychology department: “The department said, ‘This is garbage, and we will not put our degree on it,’ and Global Campus said ‘We’ll offer it.'

“I think that was just the kind of red flag that a lot of people were suspicious about all along: getting money-making programs up as quickly as possible…. That was the last straw for a lot of people, I’d say.”

‘It Got Very Negative’

Actually, suspicion over a primarily profit-driven model was also the first straw. The initial vision for Global Campus was akin to that of the most successful of private for-profit institutions: The project would appropriate syllabuses and course materials from its professors, reorganize them into its course management system, then hire outside instructors totally off the tenure track to teach. But that plan was rejected by the faculty senate at each of the three campuses. The professors insisted on a not-for-profit model that would not seek independent accreditation and would offer courses through existing programs on the university campuses; they also insisted on supervising their courses.

While it made economic sense to take course content from top-flight professors and hire outsiders to deliver it for less than half the price, it did not make pedagogical sense in the eyes of the faculty, Burbules said. “Teaching is not a delivery system, and I think most faculty were just not interested in giving up their course content to be ‘delivered’ by adjuncts with whom they might have little to no contact,” he said. “…You can’t divorce the syllabus from the delivery.”

Fearing that if the faculty did not support the project it would be doomed, Gardner abandoned the for-profit model and agreed to make the academic departments partners in the Global Campus degree programs.

"They demanded we … not pursue accreditation independently, at least not initially,” Gardner said. “They thought sufficient programs would come forward from the residential programs for [Global Campus] to become successful. And that didn’t happen.”

Burbules, who continued working with Global Campus up until the final months before it was axed, said he encountered a good deal of willful resistance from the traditional programs. “I called dean after dean on [the Urbana-Champaign] campus about whether they wanted to work with this program,” he said. “And with maybe one exception, they said, ‘This is a great idea, I would be happy to work with you — but I will not work with you if this is going to be a Global Campus program.’ ”

With few courses being developed by faculty, Global Campus was unable to grow its enrollment at the ambitious pace it had set for itself. At the time the trustees nixed it, the project had half the programs it had hoped to have after two years. “We’d only spent about 40 percent of the money,” said Gardner, “so from a business perspective we were really on track with what we were going for — the only exception being that we had half the enrollment.” Gardner would not talk on the record about why he thought the board decided to scrap Global Campus, but he did say the lack of faculty support played a big role in the project’s failure.

“It got very negative near the end,” Burbules said, “and a bit personal, too.” He declined to elaborate.

Lessons Learned

So was the failure of Global Campus a product of the unique politics of the University of Illinois, or does it speak more broadly to the challenges a major public university might face in trying to develop a large-scale online spin-off?

Gardner argued the former. “I think our situation is unique,” he said. “At our Urbana and Chicago campuses, online education is simply not a priority… I think the fundamental problem here is that at this juncture there just isn’t the priority or the interest among our faculty, and I think that’s a characteristic of this university. I just tend to think the cards were stacked against us from the beginning.”

But Bodenhorn, the history professor who served on the Springfield faculty senate when the professors fought against the original for-profit idea, suggested that the professors revolted against Global Campus not because they objected to expanding access through online education, but because they objected to the way this particular project was going to be administered. “In a certain way I sort of agree with Chet Gardner’s take that faculty resistance was a problem, but I would flip that around and say the resistance was due to the model.”

That model — based on the streamlined operations of for-profit institutions — was designed to be nimble, said Ohio University professor Richard Vedder, an outspoken critic of traditional higher education who holds two degrees from Illinois. In other words, it was meant to operate contrary to the inclusive, deliberative, and often molasses-paced process of traditional curriculum development. “It slowed down dramatically, simply because the faculty insisted they be involved,” Vedder said. “And instead of having nimble, quick course development like the for-profits did, you had… a slower process. I think that took away some of the entrepreneurial initiative.”

That slow pace of development appears to have figured into the board’s decision to pull the plug on Global Campus, but a public university-based online initiative that partners with academic departments to develop courses is not necessarily doomed. UMassOnline, the integrated online wing of the University of Massachusetts, has enjoyed huge success using exactly that model. The for-profit structure “would have more potential for explosive profits,” said Ernest May, a Massachusetts music professor who chairs the university’s inter-faculty council. “We have a stable model,” he said. “It doesn’t have as explosive potential probably, but neither is it likely to crash and burn.”

Slow development is only a deal breaker if the design makes it one, said Burbules, the Illinois professor who helped advise Global Campus. He said he was recently contacted by top officials from another state university system, who were exploring the possibility of a separately accredited online campus and wanted to find out “what we had learned from the Global Campus mistake.” Burbules told them one of Illinois’s biggest missteps was to spent large sums right away building an independent administrative structure from scratch, before the academic programs were in place. That huge upfront investment increased the pressure to show speedy returns, he said, thereby creating a need for speedy program development, which was contingent upon the for-profit model of buying syllabuses and hiring cheap instructors. When the faculty used its clout to burden Global Campus with the anchor of curricular oversight, speedy returns went out the window.

“What we learned from this process, and what we’re doing now, is a very different model of development, which is to start with very successful online courses and programs... then exploring how we can grow and scale up those programs, as opposed to creating a superstructure and then saying we need to create programs to pay off the initial investment," Burbules said. "It's basically a bottom-up versus top-down approach."

The University of Illinois Global Campus bet on the idea that a major public university could deliver a top-tier education via a nimble, centralized, for-profit model. Was it a fool’s errand? For many at Illinois, that might turned on whether they thought an online course developed, overseen and taught by top-tier professors is equivalent to a less experienced instructor teaching from the same syllabus and resources — and whether, as a university, they were willing to stake their brand on it. And in the end, the no’s had it.

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