Finding the right faculty role in distance education is a tricky question at many colleges.
At Delaware State University, already tense relations between professors and the administration may implode over the issue. The American Association of University Professors, the faculty union at the university, has filed a complaint with the state labor board over plans to hire an outside company to offer a master's degree online. The controversy comes at a time that alumni leaders are also angry over the direction of the university, which some fear is at risk of losing its identity as a historically black institution.
The AAUP complaint charges that the administration is directly violating the faculty contract by offering a new degree program without faculty approval -- and without faculty members playing any role in designing the curriculum or teaching it. Carlos Holmes, a spokesman for the university, said that the faculty group was distorting the contract. "The Faculty Senate is an advisory body and great weight is given to their recommendations, but they are not binding recommendations," he said.
The controversial new master's degree is in graphic arts and Web design and would be offered through a New York City company called Sessions.edu. 
Sessions offers online programs directly to students online and has designed and managed associate degree programs for some for-profit institutions. The program at Delaware State would be its first master's program and its first joint venture with a nonprofit college. Doris Granatowski, CEO of Sessions, said that Delaware State officials will decide how much of a role their faculty will play, and that it could be extensive. Or Sessions faculty can plan and teach the courses in the program.
Jonathan G. Alexrod, a lawyer for the AAUP, said that there are numerous problems with the plan, which is currently awaiting a review by Delaware State's accreditor.
"First of all, we have a collective bargaining agreement that says that all courses are taught by faculty -- whether full-time or adjunct, and these courses would not be taught by faculty," he said.
The AAUP is not opposed to distance education, Axelrod said, but programs need to be developed in a way that assures appropriate quality control. "The normal program generates from the faculty up and this came from the top down. It wasn't presented to them with a curriculum and a teaching method. There is no control over who does the teaching. The faculty at Sessions don't have master's or doctorates. The teaching is not by people who would be otherwise qualified, but the university would be issuing graduate degrees based on this."
Axelrod said that under the plan, "the university is renting out its name, not teaching a course."
Granatowski acknowledged that none of her faculty members have Ph.D.'s and only a few have master's degrees. But she said that was "an unfair comparison" because of the design-oriented programs Sessions offers. Faculty members have "tremendously relevant experience and are very accomplished," she said, and their lack of doctorates "certainly hasn't mattered to the success of our students."
Exact financial details aren't yet final, Granatowski said. Delaware State will pay Sessions a fee for the services it uses, but that fee will vary depending on whether Delaware State faculty end up playing a role in the courses. The university can charge students whatever it wants and can keep any profits, she said.
She added that her company offered universities a chance to start offering a new program, and that institutions were obviously free to build up their own programs without Sessions. But, she added, "when we came down to the campus, it was clear from the faculty members that we met that this was not something they envisioned taking on themselves any time in the near future."
Holmes, the spokesman for the university, said that expanding distance education was a priority for the institution and Sessions offered a way to do so. He said that it was still possible that Delaware State faculty members would teach the courses, but that "if there is no one qualified to teach the course, we might have to look outside the university."
He characterized the faculty anger with the administration of Allen L. Sessoms, the president, as normal. "Just like any other university, there are faculty that are very supportive of the president and there are faculty that may not always agree with him. I don't think this university is any different from any other."
Not everyone who cares about Delaware State agrees. The alumni association voted no confidence last weekend in the president. Alfred A. Outlaw, president of the association, said that there were many issues in play and that he was just learning about the controversy over distance education.
"We're certainly concerned about that. We're concerned about whatever happens at our university that brings about chaos, that brings about dissatisfaction, that brings about dismay," he said.
He said that the new program raised questions because it was an entire degree program, not just a course or a lecture.
While he said that there were still "many positive things going on" at the university, Outlaw said that many alumni are concerned that the priorities of the administration do not put enough emphasis on preserving its role as a historically black institution.
Outlaw said, for example, that President Sessoms was replacing people in "key leadership positions" who were "role models for minorities" with white people. He declined to identify the positions he was concerned about.
Holmes, the university spokesman, said that the president was very interested in working with the alumni group and was "receptive to their input." But Holmes added that while there has been a "rampant rumor" that changes at the university are related to ending its historically black designation, "there is no truth to that whatsoever." (About 2,600 of Delaware State's 3,270 students are black.)
Delaware State has recently hired administrators who are black and others who are white, he said, always looking "for the very best person."
Holmes acknowledged that in two top administrative searches recently, white people replaced black people. But he said that black candidates had been the first choice both times. "In one case, the university could not get together with the individual with respect to money, and in the other case, the person was offered the job, accepted it and then for whatever reason didn't take it." The runners-up who ended up with the jobs, whom Holmes said were "very qualified," are white.
Asked what he made of all the controversies, Holmes said, "it's what happens in the course of change."