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Brand for Hire

January 21, 2010

What’s in a brand?

Enough to make some faculty members at West Virginia Wesleyan College uncomfortable with their institution stamping its seal on online courses developed and taught completely by outside commercial education providers.

In May, the liberal arts college began offering thousands of non-credit courses online. The subjects vary widely, ranging from academic courses on Constitutional law to self-improvement seminars on how to be more assertive. What they have in common is that while the program is billed as a joint venture between West Virginia Wesleyan and four for-profit education partners, the courses are developed and administered by the outside companies alone. West Virginia Wesleyan professors do not vet the courses, nor do they teach them.

Some professors found this arrangement disconcerting. “The faculty were not pleased that this had been rolled out without any consultation,” says Jeanne Sullivan, chair of the biology department. Sullivan says she and some of her colleagues were worried that associating West Virginia Wesleyan so directly with online courses developed by outside companies without faculty oversight could dilute the college’s reputation.

Sullivan said she had been particularly concerned about several courses in alternative medicine — such as crystal therapy and naturopathy — that she considered “pseudo-scientific” and unbecoming to a college that has a reputation for graduating students into the medical profession. “It was a reputational concern,” she said. “…I think it clouds our image.”

College officials acknowledged that there had been similar faculty objections to certain courses in the fall, particularly from the biology and education faculty. And while the officials said the faculty's concerns had been largely put to rest, Sullivan said she is not the only professor who still has reservations about the extended learning office's corporate partnerships.

She said the college agreed to remove those courses from its catalog after she complained, giving her faith that the administration was sympathetic to her concerns. But relying on professors to weed out unworthy courses after the fact, Sullivan said, is not a preferable way to do oversight. She said she is not sure if the college’s partnerships with the commercial education providers can be reconciled with what she believes the West Virginia Wesleyan brand should represent.

The college’s partners in the online continuing education enterprise are Education to Go, ProTrain, Gatlin Educational Services, and The E-Learning Center — companies that create online courses for learners of all levels and hire people to teach them. West Virginia Wesleyan's role in the partnerships, according to college officials, is to use its brand to help market the courses, which range in price from $89 to around $3,000. For this, the college takes a percentage of the revenue (about 40 percent for most of the low-end courses; officials said profit-sharing for the more expensive courses varied). No credit is awarded.

West Virginia Wesleyan projects that within a year and a half it will be making $50,000 per year on the online continuing-education courses, according Kathleen M. Long, the dean of graduate studies and extended learning at the college.

Such money-making endeavors are necessary for colleges with small endowments, said Larry R. Parsons, the academic dean. “You have to figure out how you get streams of revenue other than the typical academic student,” Parsons said. “If you’re a small college, and you don’t have a huge endowment, you can no longer totally rely on [tuition revenue from] the undergraduate population.”

Debating the issue of whether the college should be loaning its brand to outside providers for a fee is “such a non-issue in terms of the priorities of this institution,” Parsons said. Since the courses are not offered for credit, he said, they are not part of the college’s curriculum, and therefore needn’t be subjected to the normal faculty approval process. And while some professors in the biology and education departments had voiced concerns last fall about certain courses in the extended education catalog, Parsons said the objectionable courses had been removed and the question had been put to bed.

Offering non-curricular courses aimed at adult learners looking to learn a professional skill or hobby, Long added, is in line with West Virginia Wesleyan’s mission statement — wherein the college “recognizes and affirms its interdependence with the external communities… and its covenant with the people of West Virginia to share its educational and cultural resources.”

 

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