New Job With an Old Friend

November 2, 2010

While collecting a $115,000 paycheck from Arkansas State University, the former president of the state system hopes to strengthen relations between the university and a controversial online education company that now employs him, according to documents released Monday.

Leslie Wyatt, who resigned as system head in July and now has faculty status, works as a consultant for Academic Partnerships, LLC, formerly known as Higher Ed Holdings, university documents state. Additionally, he serves as president and chairman of the American University System, a nonprofit association affiliated with the company, according to a cached version of the organization’s website. Amid mounting concern over potential conflicts of interest, the nonprofit group removed the only mention of Wyatt’s name on the site.

Wyatt’s work with Academic Partnerships has given additional fodder to critics, who have questioned how the company secured a lucrative contract without the input of any non-administrative faculty. As with the University of Toledo, where faculty rancor over Higher Ed Holdings derailed a deal in the works, some at Arkansas have questioned whether academic quality suffers when a university partners with a company known for providing inexpensive degrees on a massive scale.

Arkansas administrators fervently dispute the notion that quality is threatened by the university's partnership, saying the university controls all of the academic elements of instruction and hires the teaching assistants who work on Academic Partnerships courses. At the same time, Academic Partnerships describes itself as a valuable support arm for colleges, allowing institutions to expand access without having to pay the start-up costs associated with new distance education programs.

Adding fuel to the fire at Arkansas was the recent disclosure that Dan Howard, interim chancellor of the university’s Jonesboro campus, also served on a board affiliated with the company. Howard, who said he received no compensation other than travel and lodging expenses for meetings, resigned last week from the board of the American College of Education, which is owned by Academic Partnerships.

In a conflict of interest form submitted the day after his resignation as system chief, Wyatt disclosed his new job with Academic Partnerships. While he acknowledged the university’s contract with the company was negotiated during his tenure as system president, Wyatt said he had no “actual or potential conflict” by taking a position with the company the day after he stepped down.

“Everybody I have heard talk about it is shocked, less that it happened and more that it happened so brazenly,” said Erik Gilbert, a history professor and early critic of what he described as a flawed university process to partner with the company. "He’s not aware of how bad it looks is what’s so baffling about it all.”

“The rapidity with which it happened leaves open the possibility that [a future job] was on the table when [administrators were] thinking about adopting Higher Ed Holdings,” he added.

Wyatt was involved in discussions with Higher Ed Holdings from the beginning. Indeed, he was among a small group of administrators to visit Lamar University, the first adopter of the model, on April 14, 2008, university officials said. Arkansas State’s contract with the company, which provided Higher Ed Holdings with 80 percent of tuition revenues from the courses, was signed four days later.

In his new role as a faculty member, Wyatt noted in his disclosure form that he wouldn’t have any authority over the contract with Academic Partnerships. At the same time, however, Wyatt has said quite openly that he hopes to find ways to strengthen ties between the university and the company he's working for now.

In a July 16 e-mail to Howard, Wyatt stated that he would like to see more partnerships between Arkansas State and Academic Partnerships, as well as the New England College of Business and the Whitney University System. All three groups have ties to Academic Partnership's leadership team and Best Associates, a merchant banking group headed by Randy Best, a Texas entrepreneur.

“I will seek to find ways to further develop the relationship between ASUJ and [Arkansas State University Mountain Home] and those entities, and especially to identify new opportunities which I will bring to your attention for consideration,” Wyatt wrote. “… I am especially hopeful that we may develop an ASU relationship with the affinity corporate partners described in the presentation we saw about the American University System.”

Wyatt did not respond to an interview request Monday or reply to specific e-mailed questions about conflicts of interest, but he provided a general description of the American University System, suggesting Inside Higher Ed consult the group's website. Officials at Academic Partnerships and the American University System also did not respond to phone messages.

In an interview Monday, Howard said he did not see any conflict of interest based on what Wyatt had submitted, and he only resigned from the American College of Education board out of an "abundance of caution." At the same time, however, Howard acknowledged that he needs to further consider whether Wyatt can provide objective advice on expanded online education partnerships for Arkansas State if he’s also working for a company in that business.

“I will give that some thought,” he said.

Howard gave a similar answer when asked whether he would suggest Wyatt, in a similar abundance of caution, should cut ties with either the company or the university.

“I’ll contemplate that,” he said. “I will certainly give it thought.”

While Wyatt has the option of teaching summer courses, he wouldn’t be obligated to return to the classroom until the fall, Howard said. In the meantime, Wyatt’s 12-month post-presidential assignment includes six months reporting to the chancellor on distance education matters and six months preparing for his teaching, Howard said.

Wyatt has not been on campus regularly, and now has a home in Dallas, where Best Associates is housed. He reports to Howard, however, who says the old boss is doing a good job.

“He continues to do work on behalf of ASU,” Howard said. “I have no doubt about that.”

Wyatt has already been scouting out potential competitors for Arkansas State, including Wal-Mart. In his July e-mail to Howard, Wyatt described the partnership between the retail giant and the American Public University System, a for-profit online education provider, as a “horizon” event that could have a negative impact on Arkansas State. The partnership is designed to provide affordable degrees to Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club employees – presumably the very sorts of students Arkansas State is courting through distance education.

“I am concerned that, once this delivery system for the 1.8 million Wal-Mart employees is perfected, the concept will be expanded to general consumers worldwide,” Wyatt wrote. “This effort will dilute and cripple the ability of schools like ASU to remain viable in the future. I would like to learn enough to be able to resist or respond to the challenge on behalf of our university.”

Taken collectively, Wyatt’s rhetoric and actions suggest he views the university in terms of profit and loss – rather than as the provider of a social good, said William Rowe, an art professor at Arkansas State.

“Bottom line,” he said, “everything is business and not education.”

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