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The effort to offer more graduate degree programs online at Rutgers University at New Brunswick hit a snag on Wednesday, as faculty members in the Graduate School voted to block new programs from being approved. While faculty union representatives claim a “slam-dunk victory” against corporatization, the rest of the university plans to proceed.

The clash between Rutgers’ administration and some of its faculty members resembles similar debates at other institutions. Last September, the administration signed a contract with eCollege, a Pearson division, to develop and manage online degree programs with the goal of enrolling more than 22,000 additional students by 2019. The New Brunswick campus currently enrolls about 41,500 students. Faculty members, concerned about academic freedom and intellectual property rights, on Wednesday passed a procedural roadblock that automatically withholds approval from any new program to be managed under the agreement with Pearson.

“There’s nothing about this online business model that saves students money,” said David M. Hughes, professor of anthropology. “This is not about Rutgers trying to increase the access and affordability of its offerings. In fact, it’s supposed to bring in a great deal of revenue for both Pearson and Rutgers.”

According the agreement, Pearson will receive half of the tuition revenue in the first academic year. The share drops as more students enroll; if Rutgers were to meet its 2019 enrollment goal, for example, Pearson would take 45 percent the next academic year. Hughes said a growth in enrollment and tuition revenue should be accompanied by more tenured faculty members, not corporate profits.

The resolution, which passed, 39-22, doesn’t bring the agreement to a full stop, but covers all new and existing degree programs managed by the graduate school. That includes the degrees offered by the School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences and the Professional Science Master's Program, but not the School of Engineering or the School of Social Work, for example. Hughes estimated there are about 120 Ph.D. and master's degree programs in the School of Arts and Science alone.

“We haven’t entirely closed the barn door, but we've made it a lot narrower,” said Hughes, a member of the executive council of the Rutgers AAUP-AFT, which represents more than 6,600 faculty members there. “Symbolically what this signifies is that it’s a movement among faculty to boycott this Pearson agreement. None of it will work if faculty don’t teach under the limitations of the contract.”

In a statement, Jerome Kukor, dean of the Graduate School, said the university accepts the vote, but that degree programs not managed by the Graduate School will still be free to participate.

“The resolution approved by 39 members of the approximately 1,500 member graduate school faculty is not binding on the university,” Kukor wrote. “It was their decision to reject the option of participating in the program to develop online course offerings. The university will not ignore the vote and will implement its result -- which limits the choice for graduate programs in the Graduate School [at] New Brunswick."

Kukor said the contract was reviewed by a 15-member committee that "included a wide representation of faculty, staff and administrators from all Rutgers campuses.... Faculty unions are not part of the university's contract negotiations with vendors, but Rutgers faculty were represented and consulted throughout the entire process."

Susan Aspey, Pearson's vice president of media relations, said in a statement the company was awarded the contract after a competitive bidding process.

"In the spirit of academic freedom, faculty are free to choose the content they want for their course, including Pearson content," Aspey wrote. "All academic decisions have and continue to be made by the university."

Hughes said the faculty critics have concerns about Pearson and the university. The contract with Pearson stipulates the content featured in online courses can’t include “obscene, threatening, indecent, libelous, slanderous, defamatory or otherwise unlawful or tortious material, including material that is harmful to children” -- a clause that Hughes said could threatens faculty members' academic freedom. For example, he said he was unsure if a course on human eroticism would be deemed harmful to children, thereby violating the contract.

Pearson addressed the "obscenity clause" in a letter to Rutgers in late July. 

"The sole purpose of the contract language is to act as a safety net for Pearson in the extreme situation where Rutgers is unable to resolve the claim through its internal procedures and the user presses a claim against Pearson," the letter reads. "As a point of reference, no issue has ever reached the point where we had to consider taking that route in the 15+ years the platform has been used by universities and their students."

Faculty members have to sign a separate contract with the university to create an online course, which Hughes said strips them of their intellectual property rights. A draft of the agreement states that “Due to the particular requirements of an online program, this license specifically includes the right to have the course taught by others.”

“A lot of faculty see red when they read that,” said Hughes, who pointed out the clause would allow the university to “unbundle” the role of an instructor. In a worst-case scenario, he said faculty members could in the future be replaced by an underpaid “drone army of course facilitators” hired to teach course material created by their predecessors.

Kukor dismissed the claims in his statement. “There are no threats to academic freedom, no corporatization of Rutgers education, no influence by Pearson as to who teaches courses -- that remains solely a Rutgers decision, and there is no claim on any faculty intellectual property rights,” he wrote.

Even though the administration will not reconsider the partnership with Pearson, Hughes said the move was an invitation to debate the involvement of outside firms in online education at Rutgers.

“I think a resolution is a resolution,” Hughes said. “This may go into extra innings. The resolution was not meant as a recommendation. It was not meant as advice. It was meant as a decision.”

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