In Over Its Head?

U.S. agency suspends all federally funded human-subjects research at West Virginia's Bluefield State College after long list of alleged violations.

December 15, 2010

The number of dual degree programs operated by American colleges overseas continues to increase, but the day-to-day operations of such programs have rarely been the subject of sustained, scholarly scrutiny. Generally speaking, questions of quality only come to the surface when something dramatic happens, as when Centenary College, in New Jersey, closed its M.B.A. program in China last summer after detecting rampant plagiarism.

However, a dissertation published by Jerry Vincent Nix – titled "Sino-U.S. Transnational Education – 'Buying' an American Higher Education Program: A Participant Observation Case Study" -- provides a unique, revealing and at times none-too-pretty account of the academic and administrative practices of "Northeast College," a pseudonym for Keuka College, a small, private institution in the Finger Lakes region of New York. (Keuka officials neither confirmed nor denied that the dissertation was intended to paint a portrait of its own program in China, although they raised questions about its accuracy, "to the extent that the dissertation may allude to Keuka College….")

Keuka boasts of having the largest enrollment of any U.S. degree program operating in China: 3,441 students are currently enrolled in Keuka’s bachelor of science in management program across four partner universities, in Fujian, Tianjin, Yunnan, and Zhejiang. (The total enrollment has actually declined over the past few years in part because Keuka reduced enrollment at its partner institution in Zhejiang in response to concerns about English language abilities, and tightened entry requirements.) Students take 30 credits from Keuka (taught in English) and 90 credits from the partner university (taught in Chinese) and earn dual degrees.

How did Keuka College end up being a powerhouse player in China, with more than twice as many students enrolled there as in New York? Is it the little college that could or is it, per the account in the dissertation, the institution that got in over its head? These narratives are not mutually exclusive.

The dissertation, published in December 2009 but recently released from embargo, is presented as a participant observation case study of "Northeast," based on data gathered in 2007-8 while Nix was an instructor in the program, teaching courses in career management, human resources, leadership, organizational behavior, and strategic management. While the dissertation does not identify Keuka by name, Nix’s own curriculum vitae lists Keuka China Programs Inc. (KCPI) as his employer during the research period, and Nix was until days ago listed on Keuka College’s directory of its China program faculty. A former colleague of Nix’s, Ed Heresniak – who remains listed on the faculty directory – assisted in editing the dissertation and confirms that Northeast is a pseudonym for Keuka.

The dissertation describes Northeast as "located in the heart of upstate New York," characterized by its emphasis on experiential education and its distinctive "Field Period," which, among other things, provides the opportunity for internships and service learning; similarly, Keuka College’s website describes itself as "the national leader in experiential, hands-on learning" and promotes the Field Period as the "cornerstone" of a Keuka education. Among the other similarities, the description of Northeast echoes Keuka’s own account of itself as having the largest enrollment of all U.S. degree programs in China and of having first partnered with Chinese universities to initiate the "Sino-American Academic Collaboration Program" in 2002. Northeast’s partner universities are located in Fujian, Tianjin, Yunnan and Zhejiang, as are Keuka’s.

The Case Study

The dissertation, accepted by Washington State University’s College of Education, presents a portrait of a program characterized by large class sizes and overworked instructors, and suggests that administrators in New York were, in practice, relatively powerless to address these problems. "My take on the thing, basically, all the way through, was that Northeast College, whatever I call them, were in over their heads," Nix said in an interview.

In his dissertation, Nix argues: "Administrators in the U.S. (parent country) institution are faced with doing business in China, most for the first times in their careers. Academic administrators may in fact lack the requisite business skills or cross-cultural savvy that the program demands. The China TNE [transnational education] program operates in a complex culture built on relationships and compounded by every player maneuvering to maximize profits."

"Chinese governmental regulations alter power in a way that allows the negotiating-agent to dictate many procedures that otherwise would be under U.S. administrative control: how many students are in a classroom, which textbooks will [be] used in courses, and which instructors are qualified to teach specific courses."

The dissertation defines the "normal" teaching load as being 22.5 course hours (of 45 minutes each) per week; a Keuka official confirmed it's about 20, but stressed that it is an immersion-style program and that the instructors do not have the same out-of-classroom responsibilities (such as advising or committee work) that instructors have in the United States. The dissertation reports that, in a "typical schedule," instructors were teaching up to 12 sections of 70 students in a semester. Keuka officials report that instructors typically teach two classes, of five sections each, or 10 total sections, with class sizes ranging from 40 to 60 students. Keuka officials say there are 13 instructors teaching in the program this fall -- two on full-time contracts for a year, two on full-time contracts for a semester, and the rest as adjuncts.

Nix reports that faculty often taught far in excess of the typical load, stating that he personally taught two-and-a-half-week stretches of more than 40 in-class hours per week. "Despite normally heavy teaching loads," Nix writes, "many instructors are asked to do more and some acquiesce; this leaves little time for out-of-the-classroom contact with students; grading occupies much of an instructors [sic] 'free time.'"

In fall 2007, Heresniak reports, he taught more than 20 classes of 45 minutes each week. He said he taught using an assigned out-of-date U.S. textbook from 2003. He noted that, due to the accelerated nature of the coursework, section meetings were sometimes scheduled twice in the same day, leaving students without opportunities to read the textbook or complete homework assignments between classes. Furthermore, Heresniak noted: "Reading, correcting, commenting on and evaluating the work of 320 students with a 24 contact-hour load is daunting and discourages assigning written work."

"This program is a missed opportunity to do it right and demonstrate what higher ed in the U.S. represents," said Heresniak, who added that the Keuka program "doesn't deliver anywhere near equivalence to a U.S. degree earned on a U.S. campus despite the school's awarding a Keuka degree to partner program participants."

"Some people have used the excuse that one eye is better for a blind man than two as an apology for [the] program's shortcomings. Turning a blind eye is more like it given the ground truth at partner schools in China."

Keuka’s Perspective

When Inside Higher Ed contacted Keuka administrators about the dissertation, an outside lawyer initially returned the reporter’s call. Over the course of several weeks, Keuka officials subsequently offered direct responses, in a phone interview and in writing, maintaining, in the latter, that, "Several facts about the imaginary Northeast College are inaccurate if applied to Keuka College and KCP [Keuka China Program]." Specifically, Keuka officials countered:

  • "Northeast College is said to have 'profited' 10 million in 2008. Keuka College's KCP has never generated as much as $1 million in revenue after administrative costs." (The $10 million figure in the dissertation refers to estimated tuition revenue. Keuka cites the four-year tuition for the program -- covering the 10 Keuka courses and three internship placements -- as varying between $3,312 and $4,690 across the four university partner sites. As a very rough estimate, the average tuition rate, across the four sites, multiplied by 3,441 -- the current enrollment figure -- would equal to about $14 million in total tuition revenue, but to be collected over four years, not one. Again, enrollment has shrunk in recent years.)
  • "Northeast College is said to admit Chinese students into the program based on little more than their ability to pay. In fact, admission to KCP is based solely on admission to the partner university in China except for an English requirement."
  • "Northeast College is said to offer 26 majors. Keuka College offers 33 undergraduate majors.” (However, it’s worth noting that the Keuka China Program’s 2009-10 handbook includes this same error, as it also lists Keuka’s number of majors as 26.)
  • "Northeast College is said to partner with a university in Heibei (sic) Province to create a bachelor's program in nursing. Keuka College has won Chinese approval for such a program but decided not to implement the program in China." (The dissertation actually reports such a program as being in the planning stages; per the dissertation, "Planning stages for a fifth program were completed as I was collecting data; Northeast College has partnered with another Chinese partner university in Hebei Province to create a Bachelor of Science in Nursing program.")

"The reality is what we do in China, why we’re in China, the impact we have, the transformational impact we have on students there -- there is no reconciliation between what I read in that dissertation and what Keuka College is doing in China,” said Gary Smith, the vice president for the Center for Professional Studies.

Keuka officials also criticized Nix’s research methods, again stating four points, that: (1) "Keuka College has no record of any effort to follow research standards in reporting findings from human subjects," (2) "No one who taught in KCP was approved to conduct dissertation research on Keuka China students," (3) "Our records show no evidence that any Keuka College officials signed consent forms to participate in dissertation research on KCP," and (4) "In any research with human subjects, it is standard practice to get this kind of signed, informed consent from all participants individually -- even if there is signed documentation of institutional support from an appropriate university official. We have no evidence that such consent was obtained or even requested."

When asked to respond to the four points, Nix said that he had received institutional research board approval for human subjects research from Washington State -- the institution that awarded his Ph.D. and not the institution that was the subject of his study -- and that he did not ask for signed consent forms as they would compromise confidentiality. Instead, he said he conducted his research under the principle of implied, informed, verbal consent. He writes in his dissertation that he first identified his intentions to conduct research in his cover letter and curriculum vitae, and reiterated them during his job interview. (In his dissertation, Nix writes that in his phone interview, "I explicitly stated that I wanted the job to collect the data towards a Ph.D. dissertation." Smith recalls interviewing Nix in January 2007, but said he doesn’t recall that part: "I think I would have remembered if a candidate had asked me, 'Is it OK if I do research on your institution?' " Nix stands by his account.) Once hired, Nix said, "Every course I taught, the first day I gave a little presentation introducing myself and saying, 'This is my Ph.D. research, teaching you, finding out what this program is about.' "

Keuka officials present a very different portrait of what the program in China is about. "We’re proud of the program we offer; we think we’ve really brought something unique and special to China," said Anne Weed, the college’s vice president for academic affairs. Keuka’s experiential education model, with its focus on active learning – group projects, oral presentations, simulations and case studies – offers an obvious counter to the Chinese higher education system’s emphasis on rote learning.

"What we offer is a quality program, and throughout this research is this implication that it is not a quality program," Weed said.

On the matter of control, they state that Keuka College provides oversight of Keuka China Programs "in all academic areas, including: faculty hiring and evaluation; curriculum development; ensuring of academic rigor; and assessment of student learning." They add, too, that faculty courseload is "consistent with the norm of faculty courseload in China," and said that the Chinese Ministry of Education has praised Keuka for the high qualifications of its faculty – 75 percent hold a Ph.D. or other terminal degree.

In its written response to questions for this article, Keuka stated that its Chinese partner universities have "consistently" offered them the following feedback:

  • "KCP graduates tend to seek jobs that require creative extroverts who take initiative; in contrast, students who receive just a Chinese education are much more traditional and conservative. They tend to work in government and state-owned companies."
  • "KCP graduates have better employment rates and stronger skills for seeking and obtaining employment opportunities compared to other graduates of the same Chinese universities."
  • "KCP graduates go overseas to continue their education at higher rates than other graduates of the same Chinese universities."

Student Perspectives

One such successful alumna is Angeline Shen, who graduated from Keuka’s China program in 2008 and is currently pursuing her M.B.A. from Fairleigh Dickinson University, in New Jersey. She chose Keuka’s program in China because, she said, “I had a plan to go abroad to continue my education, so I think, it’s an American college, so they will bring a lot of American-style teaching to the class.” Her other main reason for enrolling was to improve her English.

She holds undergraduate degrees from Jimei University, in Fujian, and Keuka, and was able to apply some of her Keuka credits toward her M.B.A. “To be honest, of those two degrees, the Keuka one is more valuable for me in the U.S.,” she said, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “I cannot use my Chinese degree in the U.S.”

Interviews with students provide the most intimate portrait of the Keuka program. In his dissertation, Nix interviewed 22 "Northeast" students. He found that, while some were attracted by the ability to earn a dual degree, the most common reason students enrolled was that they had received low scores on the college entrance examination. "Several students saw this as a 'second chance' because they could not enter the ‘regular Chinese university,' " he writes.

Over all, students were most satisfied with the opportunity to take classes from foreign teachers, to improve their English, and to practice working in teams (“Chinese students repeatedly said that teamwork was a skill that they did not practice in their Chinese coursework,” Nix writes). In addition, Nix writes, "The practical aspects of the program – opportunities to actually do work before students graduated – were appreciated."

On the other hand, the students’ top reason for dissatisfaction, reported in the dissertation, was the accelerated nature of the coursework. As Nix writes: "Some courses (consisting of 45 lecture-hours) were completed in barely four weeks. Some instructors told me they had done a course in two weeks; I taught several 'retake' courses over two-week periods each." Other areas of dissatisfaction included the cultural gap between foreign instructors and students and confusing or random course scheduling. Nix adds in his dissertation, "Caution must be taken not to infer that survey results are 'the norm' of all students. Roughly 20 percent of the students I taught understood almost nothing when I spoke. It would be naïve to expect that their views were related in the survey results."

"There are many good parts of join[ing the] Keuka program," Resa Zhong, a 2008 graduate, said in an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed. After graduating, she attended the University of Technology, Sydney, and now works at a real estate company in China. "I have more opportunities to practice English, and knows [a] different culture, and the education system is big different from Chinese university. I am more active when I was study[ing] in western courses."

On the other hand, Zhong said: "I don't like [that] each class have lots of students, roughly 40-80. It's kind of difficult to communicate with [the] teacher."

In a subsequent e-mail, she added: "I don't know how much benefit the Chinese students gain from Keuka program…. Most of my classmates in Keuka program couldn't speak so good English. For most of them, study in Keuka program is an experience. Unfortunately, it doesn't become a good opportunity for them. As for me, I didn't use so much English after I came back to China. It's difficult to find a good job without experience in China, and also lots of oversea students came back to China. But, I [am] still looking for other chance[s], see if I could work in [an] international company."

In general, Nix found that students had a clear perspective of the program, its strengths and its weaknesses. As he writes in the dissertation, "Rapid growth sometimes comes with a cost, and students saw the TNE program as an evolutionary process. They were sure that the program would, some day, 'be perfect.' "


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