On social media, questions quickly arose about why Arizona professors didn’t know about the deal in advance and what the arrangement would mean for the university’s reputation.
“I felt sickened,” said Leila Hudson, a University of Arizona professor of Middle Eastern and North African studies and faculty senate member, recalling the moment she found out about the planned acquisition of Ashford on Twitter.
Hudson, like many of her colleagues, had no idea the announcement was coming. She questioned why a public institution would want to associate itself with an institution such as Ashford, which she said has a reputation for preying on vulnerable students.
In a three-hour Faculty Senate meeting late Monday, many professors echoed these concerns, expressing frustration and anger at what they characterized as a lack of transparency demonstrated by university leaders. Aside from discussing the Ashford acquisition, meeting attendees also scrutinized the safety of the university's reopening plans and questioned whether looming faculty furloughs are necessary to offset a projected $250 million budget shortfall caused by COVID-19.
About 200 people did have the opportunity to provide input on the Ashford deal prior to any decision being made, said Robert C. Robbins, president of the University of Arizona, during the virtual meeting. This included deans and emeritus professors, as well as some elected faculty representatives, he said.
While some individuals on various Faculty Senate committees were given the opportunity to provide feedback on the plans, they were not free to openly discuss them. All participants in the consultation process were required to sign nondisclosure agreements preventing them from sharing any information about the proposals.
A copy of the nondisclosure agreement, viewed by Inside Higher Ed, uses obfuscated language that could generously be described as comically cryptic. The contract bars any details about “Project DigiCat” from being shared publicly. The NDA makes no mention of Ashford University nor its parent company Zovio, instead referring to these parties under the code names “Antelope" and "Zebra.”
Gary Rhoades, professor at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Arizona and former general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said that some faculty members, himself included, refused to sign the confidentiality agreement and were thus excluded from conversations about Ashford. “I don’t think it’s appropriate for any public institution to request faculty sign NDAs,” he said.
Both Rhoades and Hudson agreed that the administration's decision to consult with some individual members of the Faculty Senate, but not allow any committees to discuss the plans collectively, was not in line with the shared governance laws the university is supposed to follow when making major policy decisions. During the Senate meeting, there appeared to be some surprise among faculty members as it emerged who was, or was not, involved in the consultation process.
“I think they chose people who they believed might be more accepting of their proposals,” Rhoades said of the choices the university made about whom to involve in the decision-making process. In the Faculty Senate meeting, administrators admitted to receiving a substantial amount of negative feedback on the proposal to acquire Ashford, but they apparently decided to proceed anyway.
Those that were aware of the proposal to acquire Ashford did not know what decision had been made until the campus received an announcement email from Robbins at around 3 a.m. local time on Monday. In that campus email, Robbins referred to “robust and extensive discussion” that surrounded the deal, a characterization Rhoades challenged.
There is a pattern of “meet and ignore” among senior leaders at Arizona, said Rhoades. “They’ll meet with some folks, and sometimes with experts, in finance, in public health, but then ignore their concerns and advice and charge forward with decisions that have already been made before any real consultation,” he said.
Robbins said that secrecy around the deal was required because of Zovio’s status as a publicly traded company. He acknowledged concerns about Ashford’s reputation, stating that the university had engaged in predatory student recruitment practices in the past, but had improved and would continue to improve as a nonprofit university guided by the expertise of the University of Arizona.
Under the terms of the deal, which is expected to close later this year, the University of Arizona will create a new nonprofit entity called the University of Arizona Global Campus. Global Campus will purchase Ashford for $1 and create a new nonprofit university that is affiliated with Arizona but will be a separate institution with its own leadership, faculty, programs and students.
“The University of Arizona’s deal to acquire Ashford University is not especially surprising,” said Brian Mitchell, president and managing principal of Academic Innovators. “It is similar in many respects to the Purdue-Kaplan arrangement, but the difference is that the economic crisis emerging from the continuing COVID-19 pandemic has changed how large research universities think about their future,” he said.
The Arizona-Ashford deal is an example of “how to grow a global base quickly, take advantage of scale, shifting demographics, customer preferences, and bypass the quite legitimate concerns that faculty might have when business deals collide with faculty governance,” said Mitchell. “While these arrangements may be limited in number, combinations within higher education and with ed-tech firms will likely continue as the economic downside from the pandemic worsens.”
Frank Britt, CEO of Penn Foster, agreed that large institutions are “awakening to the need for both online scale and capability," and the "reality that online programs can help universities better serve students."
“Even with all the incumbent advantage of a large university, building effective consumer-preferred online programs often requires a different organizational DNA and muscle,” said Britt. “Leading universities are grappling with ‘build vs buy vs rent’ for online capabilities. Against that backdrop, it makes sense that U of A and others are seeking ways to help them inculcate online learning DNA, and more effectively serve students at scale.”
How much profit Arizona will actually make from the Ashford deal remains to be seen. Global Campus is guaranteed to generate $225 million in revenue over 15 years, but it will share 19.5 percent of tuition revenue with Zovio, which will provide services such as marketing, instructional design and technology. Ashford has around 35,000 students enrolled online, but enrollment has been falling for several years. Robbins said that Zovio would assist with operating costs at Global Campus, and stressed the company would retain liability for any lawsuits waged against Ashford.
A key benefit of acquiring Ashford is serving the needs of working adults, particularly nonwhite and low-income students, said Robbins. But faculty members accused the president of virtue signaling in his commitment to diversity, noting the high student loan debt of many Ashford graduates.
"Management will undoubtedly claim the problems have been resolved, that nothing is at risk, that we stand to 'position' ourselves far stronger in online education, and that we need to be innovative in addressing new challenges in the post-COVID world," Rhoades said. "Please. It is an old story in a new context, partnering with a for-profit institution that, like too many, built and lost its enrollment and wealth by preying on lower income and students of color, putting them into deep debt on which they disproportionately default, with the federal government providing the vast majority of the collected monies of these tuition mills."
He added, "This is a sad example of public universities' 'cynical academic capitalism,' grounded in white privilege and the exploitation of 'others' who the public universities themselves have generally have largely underserved."
Samuel Campos, associate professor of immunobiology at Arizona, vented his frustration at the Ashford deal on Twitter.
“As a concerned faculty member who cares deeply about UA and our students, it is disheartening to learn that UA will acquire Ashford University for financial reasons given their troublesome past of predatory recruitment,” said Campos in an email.
“To hear President Robbins tout this acquisition as a 'win' toward institutional diversity and inclusion is disgusting, given their dismally low 29 percent graduation rate and their history of legal problems for ripping off students,” said Campos.
Consumer advocates and critics of for-profit education echoed many reservations expressed by Arizona faculty members about Ashford's reputation.
"We have serious concerns about this deal," said Carrie Wofford, president of Veterans Education Success. "Just last week, we submitted evidence to VA and the California GI Bill oversight body about Ashford's rampant deceptive and misleading enrollment practices," she said in an email.
"This arrangement has thrown a financial lifeline to the University of Arizona, but at the end of the day, Arizona taxpayers have acquired a for-profit college with one of the worst track records in the industry," said Stephanie Hall, a fellow at The Century Foundation, also in an email.
"Zovio is slated to provide enrollment and financial aid services, so I expect we'll see continued use of predatory recruiting practices, though recruiters will now be able to use the association with the University of Arizona as a selling point," said Hall. "Expanded access is great, but it is unjust to create a substandard track that will run on name recognition alone."
Not everyone is upset about Ashford’s conversion to the University of Arizona Global Campus. Investors and business analysts reacted optimistically to the news. Following a Zovio investor call yesterday, the company's stock price rose by 28 percent. And while some Ashford students expressed confusion about what the deal with Arizona would mean for them, many expressed excitement that their institution would finally complete its transition to a nonprofit university.
“I think it is a great decision to steer toward the nonprofit sector,” said Jessica Kennedy, an MBA student at Ashford, in an email.
Access to higher education is important to Kennedy, and she is excited at the prospect of new resources being developed to support working professionals who want to further their education.“Being able to have more Latinas like me access higher education is important for our community to be able to tackle head-on the gender and racial wage gaps that affect us and our families."