Purdue Global Nondisclosure Agreement Gone

Purdue Global faculty members will no longer be required to sign a contentious employee agreement that allowed the university to be arbiter of who owns rights to instructional materials.

September 7, 2018
 

Purdue University Global will stop using a contentious confidentiality agreement that critics say requires academics to waive their rights to course materials they create.

The nondisclosure agreement also prohibits ex-employees from hiring former Purdue colleagues for a year -- or from bad-mouthing Purdue once they’re gone.

Inside Higher Ed and other outlets last month reported on the agreement after the American Association of University Professors posted a link to four pages from an employee handbook. AAUP has since circulated an online petition urging universities to "Say no to NDAs and forced arbitration in higher education."

AAUP has said the agreement violates its 1940 Joint Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which says instructors “are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results.” It called the four-page agreement “especially restrictive,” saying it allows the university to be the arbiter of who owns the rights to instructional materials.

Such limitations are highly unusual in nonprofit higher education, but Purdue Global itself is highly unusual, a "public benefit corporation" that is the result of Purdue University's purchase last year of the for-profit Kaplan University.

In August, Purdue Global chancellor Betty Vandenbosch told Inside Higher Ed that the agreement is not unusual in corporate employment circles, and that the nondisclosure provisions are "boilerplate" requirements. She noted as well that, despite the agreement’s restrictions, faculty retain ownership of their copyright-protected content unless it’s used in the university’s learning management system. Producing course materials for such systems, she said, often requires several people -- professors, instructional designers and curriculum managers -- working in collaboration. To grant rights to those materials to one person would be inappropriate. Critics have noted that for online programs such as those of Purdue Global, placing material in the LMS is the norm, so that the agreement would have covered most material.

In a note to faculty members, Vandenbosch on Wednesday said Purdue administrators had been examining the agreement “well before the media reports” and had concluded that it is “no longer necessary” as a condition of employment.

“There has never been a case where the agreement had to be enforced, so its removal shouldn’t affect you in any way,” she wrote.

In a statement, Frank Dooley, a senior vice provost, said the agreement was inherited from Kaplan University. Like Vandenbosch, he said that after meeting with Purdue Global colleagues and representatives of Purdue’s University Senate, administrators are now “united in the feeling that the document is unnecessary and should be discontinued in the interest of aligning with Purdue’s policies and culture.”

Vandenbosch also called media coverage of the controversy “misleading,” saying it misconstrued the agreement’s purposes. She said Purdue Global “will continue to recognize and preserve your ability to copyright, own and distribute your scholarly works and any personal instructional works that you create and offer individually to supplement Purdue Global’s online curriculum delivery, while also safeguarding trade secret and other confidential information owned by the university or entrusted to us to protect.”

In a statement issued Thursday, AAUP called the move a "huge victory" for faculty. "It not only removes a threat to the academic freedom of those currently employed by Purdue Global, but may serve as a bulwark against the use of these agreements by other academic institutions," the organization said.

The AAUP questioned whether previously signed agreements are still in effect and called on Purdue to rescind any existing faculty NDAs. A Purdue spokesman on Thursday said the agreement will no longer be in effect for any faculty member who signed it.

David Sanders, a biology professor and past chair of the Purdue University Senate, said ending the requirement that faculty sign nondisclosure agreements "is a victory for faculty working together. It is a first step in faculty efforts to ensure that Purdue University Global acts as would a bona fide institution of higher education in respecting academic freedom."

He said faculty members will continue to advocate for the elimination of forced arbitration agreements for students, a policy also inherited from Kaplan. That policy came to light last month after the left-leaning Century Foundation, a Washington think tank, published a Purdue Global policy guide it obtained via a records request to the U.S. Department of Education. The guide revealed that Purdue Global plans to ban class-action lawsuits and will apply forced arbitration even to potential fraud cases brought by students.

Purdue has said its board has the final say as to whether it will retain the arbitration policy.

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