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The new brass at Ashford University hail from public universities. And the two recently hired leaders of the for-profit institution think it has some advantages over traditional higher education, even as the university copes with a severe, perhaps existential, accreditation crisis.

In October Ashford hired Richard Pattenaude as its president. Pattenaude led the University of Maine System from 2007 until earlier this year. He is also the former president of the University of Southern Maine, and has served in leadership roles for a regional accreditor. A few weeks later Ashford tapped Gregory L. Geoffroy as the incoming chairman of its Board of Trustees. Geoffroy was president of Iowa State University from 2001 to 2012, and was previously the senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Maryland at College Park.

The decision by the two public higher education veterans to sign on with an embattled for-profit raised some eyebrows. In a telephone interview, they said it wasn’t a decision they made lightly. But both said they were impressed with Ashford’s commitment to adult students from underserved populations. The university’s roughly 90,000 students, almost all of whom attend online, are 68 percent female. About 45 percent of students are members of racial or ethnic minority groups, and 20 percent are active-duty military or veterans.

Equally important, Pattenaude and Geoffroy said, is their belief that Ashford and its publicly traded holding company, Bridgepoint Education, will make changes needed to win over accreditors.

The university, which has a small ground campus in Iowa with less than 1,000 students, had sought to shift its regional accreditation to the senior college commission of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) from its current accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

Critics, most notably Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, have pushed HLC to get tougher with for-profits. And Ashford’s WASC bid was partially in response to that pressure. For one thing, the accreditor has asked the university to demonstrate that it has a “substantial presence” in the region, which would be an easier task for the California-based Bridgepoint in WASC’s backyard. (Bridgepoint also owns the University of the Rockies.)

But WASC rejected the bid, issuing a report that said the university grew too fast and had a skimpy number of full-time faculty members, as well as low graduation rates. And now Ashford must comply with HLC's subsequent request for improvements. Otherwise the university could lose its accreditation, which would likely put it out of business. The company is also facing a U.S. Justice Department investigation of its recruitment practices.

In the interview, Pattenaude and Geoffroy said they were unable to give many details about the ongoing accreditation problems. Federal regulators generally frown on publicly traded companies making “forward looking statements” that can influence investors and buffet share prices. But they described several areas where the university is working to comply with accreditors, including the faculty mix and student retention. They also said Ashford’s singular focus on adult students will give it an edge online, including against rising competition from nonprofit institutions.

Excerpts of the interview follow:

Q: What is Ashford’s philosophy on enrollment growth going forward?

Pattenaude: What we’re doing right now is making a transition from recruitment-intensive to retention-intensive. It seems like a healthy way for this institution to move forward. When that’s all in place, I suspect it would allow us to have some steady-paced growth. It’s really not the focus of what we’re about right now. What we’re about right now is listening carefully to the feedback we received, strengthening the institution in a variety of ways … In three to five years I would like to see Ashford University viewed as one of the top private-sector, online educational institutions, focused on adults, in terms of accessibility, affordability, academic quality and student success.

Q: How do you plan to improve student retention and graduation?

Pattenaude: If this commitment to strengthening Ashford as an educational entity were not here, I wouldn’t be here. The sincerity of it, the depth of it, have helped convince me to make this decision. A year ago we had probably 2,000 people involved in recruiting in some way. We now have 900. We have more than doubled the number of student advisers. We have produced something called the “Ashford Promise,” so that a student can be with us for three weeks, and if the fit isn’t right or if their performance isn’t right, then they can choose to leave or we can say we’re not ready to matriculate you. And there’s no debt. There’s no cost, and the student has the opportunity to reapply later, go out and build their skill set. We’re really trying to make sure that the students we admit are capable of success.

Q: Why did you take the leap to a primarily online for-profit?

Geoffroy: We’re entering a period of very intense change in higher education. There is not going to be any one model going forward that’s going to be best. There are going to be multiple models. Online education is clearly going to just grow, and grow very, very fast, and important. And I think that largely that growth is going to occur through the private sector, often in partnership with more traditional universities, like Coursera is doing, and Udacity, etc. But the for-profit, private sector is going to have a big role in driving what happens in online education, in part because they can move much faster, and innovate much faster.

Pattenaude: I have been a manager in public higher education a long time. And it is a tough business; it’s sort of like driving a truck in rush-hour traffic. Here you feel like you’re driving a sports car. When the decision has been made to make a change, the will and the courage are very clear. And this institution is prepared to put money on the mission. A simple example: it was suggested that more full-time faculty would strengthen the academic quality and governance of the institution. We are on a steady march to go from the 150 we have now up to approximately 400 over two years. That’s a commitment that’s been made throughout this institution to strengthen it. That is extraordinary.

One of the exciting things that one encounters here is the willingness to measure things; to measure how things are going in the classroom and to use that to improve; to measure how a program and how a course have met their key indicators or learning outcomes. There is a willingness to engage in being reflective and to use the information we’re generating to improve that is not present in many institutions, particularly traditional institutions. In many ways we are utilizing the processes and techniques that will define the future of higher education.

Q: You’ve said the university’s mission helped attract you. How so?

Geoffroy: The focus is on providing a high-quality education to the students and making sure they’re served well. If I summarize everything that I’ve experienced in talking with faculty and university leaders here, it is a deep commitment to improving the quality of education steadily, and to providing services that help students succeed. There’s a key difference in a place like Ashford compared to a place like Iowa State. Ashford is a university that has a single focus. It’s focused on education, providing a top-quality education to the students. A land-grant university, like all of the ones that I’ve worked in, they have multiple missions, from undergraduate education to graduate education, to conducting cutting-edge research and advancing the frontiers of knowledge, to serving states through economic development and extension activities, and entertaining through athletics and all sorts of other venues. And those multiple missions stretch traditional universities in all sorts of different ways. Here there’s a single focus, it’s the focus of everything that occurs every day, and that’s providing a good, strong education and taking care of the students.

Pattenaude: The students know that what we’re about is what’s important to them. The institution is not distracted by some of these other activities. In many ways, for Greg and I, who started as faculty members, who were drawn to this because of our alleged love of knowledge, but also our love of students, in some ways it’s a return to the basics in a really powerful way.

Q: Will Ashford be able to make progress with its critics, like Sen. Harkin?

Pattenaude: A lot of that’s in the past. What we see is the trajectory of the institution, and a strong consensus about what we’re doing, will speak loudly and clearly about what this institution is moving toward. If we do a good job, if we focus on student success, I personally believe everything else will take care of itself. We’re busily working to build a really great university that’s going to be part of the future. If you look at what’s happening in public higher education right now, in terms of funding, whether it’s in Maine or Iowa, where Greg was, or California, where we are right now, the capacity of both publics and nonprofits to meet the workforce needs of the United States is dwindling, is weakening. That’s why he and I are convinced that the for-profit sector is an essential and permanent part of responding to the educational needs of this country. And if that’s true, then let’s do it right and let’s do it in a way that makes everyone proud. And that’s what we want to do, and we’ve been given the green light here to do it.

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